A leader of a rebel group that earlier this month killed two American hostages and has been linked to al-Qa'ida is believed to have been killed in a clash with Phillipine troops.
The country's President, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, said navy personnel were searching for the body of a man known as Abu Sabaya in waters off the southern island of Mindanao.
Abu Sabaya, the most visible of the commanders of the Abu Sayyaf group, was shot during a firefight with elite Phillipine troops, who have recently been training with US forces as part of President George Bush's efforts to expand his "war on terror".
Ms Arroyo said a soldier had reported that he had shot Abu Sabaya in the back and saw his body sink. "The captured Abu Sayyaf members confirmed that one of those who jumped into the sea was Abu Sabaya, who was wearing a black sweatshirt," she said. "The [military] team also confirmed shooting the man in the black sweatshirt."
The military said it had been close to tracking down Abu Sabaya since two of the group's most recent hostages – Martin Burnham, an American, and Ediborah Yap, a Filipina – were killed with three rebels during a clash on 7 June. Mr Burnham's wife, Gracia, was rescued injured and survived. Washington recently offered a $5m (£3.3m) bounty for Abu Sabaya's capture.
Major Richard Sater, a spokesman for US forces conducting counter-terrorism training exercises in the Philippines, said: "We did get word from the [Philippines military] that Abu Sabaya was one of those killed in the encounter. We are encouraged. It is a step forward in the war against terrorism."
Ms Arroyo congratulated her forces. "Terrorists will be hunted down relentlessly wherever they are. They will be given no room to manoeuvre, to hide, or to rest. We will not stop until they are all accounted for." She said the clash occurred at about 4.30am local time yesterday, about half a mile offshore in Zamboanga del Norte province, where the hostages were killed.
Major Sater said US forces had provided support during the clash but were not directly involved in the fighting. "We're here to advise and assist," he said. Asked if Americans had been near by, Major Sater said: "Yes, but I can't say how near."
Major General Ernesto Carolina, the southern military commander for the Philippines, said his soldiers had observed a boat "surreptitiously" sailing from a coastal village and had followed it for about 45 minutes. The soldiers, using night-vision goggles, decided to intercept it when they saw seven armed men on board. As they approached, the soldiers came under fire and shot back, hitting Abu Sabaya and two others who fell overboard. The soldiers used their speed boat to ram the other vessel, at which point the remaining rebel fighters surrendered.
The soldier who shot Abu Sabaya "positively, categorically said he was sure that he hit Sabaya in the back and he saw his body sink in the water," General Carolina said.
Troops said earlier that they found Abu Sabaya's sunglasses and backpack at the site of the 7 June killings in the jungle.
The Philippines' Defence Secretary, Angelo Reyes, said yesterday that an agreement had been reached to allow American military advisers to be allowed closer to the front lines fighting the rebels. The deal means they can go beyond battalion headquarters, where they had been confined, to join smaller company units.
Ms Arroyo said earlier yesterday that the US mission, on Basilan island, would end as scheduled on 31 July, despite calls from many Basilan residents for them to stay.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies