Philippines authorities arrest leader of Muslim kidnap group

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Officials said today that they have arrested a top Muslim extremist leader who allegedly planned the kidnapping of 20 people, including three Americans, from a posh island resort six weeks ago.

Nadzmie Sabtulah, also known as Commander Global, was described by military officials as the Abu Sayyaf's most respected commander and top plotter. The group, which claims to be fighting for an independent Muslim state in the southern Philippines, does not have one clear leader.

Sabtulah's arrest Sunday night in the southern region of Mindanao was considered the most serious single blow yet to the morale and might of the 1,100­member Abu Sayyaf, which fended off a major military assault last year and is currently dodging at least 5,000 troops.

"This is a big setback for the Abu Sayyaf," National police Chief Leandro Mendoza said.

The Abu Sayyaf raided the Dos Palmas beach resort, off the southwestern island of Palawan, on May 27 in the group's second major hostage­taking in a year. The hostages are reportedly held by another Abu Sayyaf commander, Abu Sabaya, on the southern island of Basilan.

Military spokesman Col. Danilo Servando said Sabtulah, suspected of kidnappings at far back as 1988, is believed to be responsible for planning the Dos Palmas assault.

"He's the think­tank of the group," Servando said. "He hatches the plan and other groups carry out the mission."

He is under "tactical interrogation," Servando said, adding that Sabtulah likely has vast amounts of information on past Abu Sayyaf raids and planned future operations.

"We expect more developments from the arrest of Global," Servando said.

The 40­year­old Sabtulah, known for his trademark beret and scarred jaw, gained worldwide attention when he and Galib Andang, another leader known as Commander Robot, won the Abu Sayyaf millions of dollars in ransoms for hostages seized at a Malaysian beach resort last year.

The windfall was so large it affected currency markets in poor areas of the south.

The government last month offered a reward of 5 million pesos (dlrs 100,000) for information leading to Sabtulah's capture. Thousands of wanted posters, showing photos of Sabtulah and five other Abu Sayyaf commanders, were plastered in open­air markets and on walls in southern cities and airdropped into remote jungle areas.

Mendoza said Sabtulah and three junior­level guerrillas were arrested in the poor Achara subdivision of General Santos City on a tip from a resident who recognized them on Mindanao island, far from their base and the site of two homemade bomb blasts Sunday that lightly injured 13 people.

He identified the other three as Saltimar Sali, 16, Halik Sabdani, 23 and Javier Sampang, 32, all from the Jolo island town of Talipao, Sabtulah's base about 560 miles south of Manila. Jolo is 60 miles southwest of Basilan.

Mendoza said the three were directly under Sabtulah's command and are suspected of conducting a botched raid in early May on the Pearl Farm Beach Resort on an island off the coast of General Santos. Gunfire from security guards repelled that assault, which the government initially claimed was an attempt to steal a speedboat.

Although the Abu Sayyaf has no clear overall leader, military spokesman Brig. Gen. Edilberto Adan described Sabtulah as its most respected commander.

He was believed to be the man most responsible for setting the group's political and religious agendas.

Adan credited the government's offer of rewards for the arrests of Abu Sayyaf leaders and members. He predicted more will fall.

"The reward system is working because informants are coming out," Adan said.

Conrado Laza, police director of General Santos City, said his men were on red alert and working on more arrests.

Basilan island residents recently reported seeing two American captives, missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham, in the island's mountainous heartland, called Sampinit Complex.

An Abu Sayyaf commander has said he beheaded a third American, Guillermo Sobero. But his body has not been found.