ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AP) _ Minutes before a Monday deadline by Muslim extremists to behead an American captive, the Philippine government dropped its objection to bringing in a Malaysian negotiator in an effort to end a 2-week-old hostage crisis.
As the noon deadline passed, Abu Sayyaf leader Abu Sabaya called in by satellite telephone to a local radio station, saying he ``may postpone'' the execution if the Malaysian government confirms it will allow Sen. Sairin Karno to enter the negotiations.
But he also issued a veiled threat against a massive military operation and confirmed that his men attacked a plantation hours earlier, abducting an unknown number of people, mostly children.
The government was obviously relieved at the reprieve but reiterated its no-ransom policy and refused to call off the thousands of troops swarming over the southern island of Basilan.
``We will do anything we can so that no one will be harmed,'' presidential spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao said. ``But we will not stop operations. We cannot accept ransom demands. Our democracy will be destroyed if we cave in to ransom demands.''
With Karno and Malaysian businessman Yusof Hamdan negotiating, millions of dollars in ransoms were reportedly brokered by Libya to end another hostage crisis last year, which started with an Abu Sayyaf raid on a Malaysian resort.
The military says the money allowed the rebels to buy arms and speedboats used in the May 27 abduction of tourists, including three Americans, from a beach resort across the Sulu Sea.
Tiglao earlier said a foreign mediator ``might cause some misunderstanding.'' But he went on national radio as the deadline neared, and said the government will permit Karno to join if Malaysia allows it.
``We want to show our sincerity,'' Tiglao said. ``We appeal on them not to harm the hostages, they have parents and children, just like them.''
The last-minute flurry of activity followed the plantation attack. Officials said the Americans may have been dragged along by the attackers.
``I hope they don't touch the children,'' said Tahira Ishmail, mayor-elect of Lantawan town in central Basilan, who reported the incident occurred nearby and involved both Muslim and Christian children. ``They're innocent. They don't know what's going on.''
Col. Hermogenes Esperon, army brigadier commander on Basilan, said some children were taken in the raid on the 1,200-acre coconut and coffee plantation along with one of the owners and a security guard. The rebels also burned a chapel and a hut, he said.
Sabaya claimed he sent out teams of fighters Monday to ``create another problem in other parts'' of the area after he received reinforcements from the guerrillas' main base on nearby Jolo island.
``I cannot even count them there are so many,'' he said. The government has estimated the Abu Sayyaf has about 1,100 fighters in the southern islands.
Sabaya said he hasn't been in touch with the plantation raiders and didn't know how many hostages were taken.
Sabaya had threatened last Thursday to kill the Americans, although under a vague deadline, then reiterated it in his first call since then to radio station RMN on Monday morning.
The threat was apparently to kill only one hostage, although Sabaya previously threatened to kill more than one. The rebels also holds 10 Filipinos.
Asked whether he would kill an American or a Filipino, he said: ``I will make sure it will be a white. If the Malaysians are allowed to enter, we will release some of the hostages as a good gesture. It's (the government's) responsibility if these white people lose their heads.''
Sabaya usually makes such announcements through the southern radio station.
Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Edilberto Adan had said Sabaya might be bluffing. The Abu Sayyaf has often threatened to kill foreign hostages in the past without doing so.
Ishmail said 30 to 50 families fled a nearby village over the weekend after they spotted Abu Sayyaf guerrillas nearby with several hostages, including Californian Guillermo Sobero and Kansas missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham.
The Abu Sayyaf says it is fighting to carve out an independent Islamic state from the southern Philippines, but the government says its members are mere bandits.
Muslims are a minority in the mostly Roman Catholic Philippines but are a majority in the southern islands that the Abu Sayyaf uses as a base.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said Sunday that paying ransom would only feed a cycle of kidnappings. ``All this will happen again, and the Abu Sayyaf will even be able to modernize,'' Arroyo said.
The guerrillas were believed to have split their 13 hostages into at least two groups to avoid detection in thick jungles.
The government is preparing for peace talks later this month with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a much larger but less radical Muslim separatist group in the southern Philippines. A second round of peace talks started Sunday with the New People's Army, a communist rebel group fighting a Marxist rebellion throughout the Philippines.
However, Arroyo ordered all-out war with the Abu Sayyaf.