Headless skeleton may be that of US hostage

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The Independent Online

Skeletal remains believed to be those of an American hostage beheaded in June by Muslim rebels in the southern Philippines were discovered by soldiers yesterday.

The skeleton, from which a skull was missing, was thought to belong to Guillermo Sobero. He was in a group of three Americans and 16 Filipinos taken hostage by the separatist group Abu Sayyaf from a resort off Palawan in late May.

The rebels – who are suspected of having links with Osama bin Laden, the chief suspect in last month's terrorist attacks in America – had claimed responsibility for beheading Mr Sobero, but his body had not been found. The bones were found by the Philippine military in Kaulayan, a remote village on Basilan island, 560 miles south of Manila. The rebels are still holding 18 people hostage on Basilan, including an American couple.

Brigadier General Glicerio Sua said that the skeleton was discovered after its whereabouts were pinpointed by an Abu Sayyaf member recently captured by the military. He said that checks were being done to ascertain whether it did belong to Mr Sobero, but that the absence of a skull made the task more difficult.

"I don't know if we can confirm this to be that of Sobero because we have to subject it first to tests," he said. "The only way to check this is through DNA and we don't have that here." He said that for the moment they would have to rely on circumstantial evidence to try to establish the identity.

The United States has named Abu Sayyaf as one of the groups that support Mr bin Laden and his al-Qa'ida organisation, blamed for the 11 September suicide attacks.

The Philippines' National Security Adviser, Roilo Golez, said this week that 178 Abu Sayyaf members had been captured by Philippine troops since July, when the President, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, ordered a crackdown.

Abu Sayyaf, which says it is fighting for an Islamic state in the south of the country, has made a series of kidnaps of foreigners, demanding ransoms for their release. It has an an estimated 1,200 members.

Government forces killed one of the group's members in a clash on Jolo island on Wednesday, said Colonel Fredesvindo Covarrubias, of the military's Southern Command. Two were taken captive on Basilan and five on Jolo.

The offensive was ordered by President Arroyo after the Americans were taken hostage in May. Mr Golez said that 90 rebels had surrendered and 80 had been killed since the crackdown began. After a series of releases, executions and new hostage-takings, Abu Sayyaf still holds 18 people on the island of Basilan.