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MUSLIM rebel leader warns conflict could widen

MANILA, Philippines (AP) _ A rebel leader responsible for abducting dozens of hostages threatened Monday to carry out more killings and spread his violent Muslim separatist movement across Southeast Asia.

Abu Sabaya demanded that the Philippine government bring in three negotiators involved in mediating the end to another hostage crisis last year by his Abu Sayyaf group, reportedly for millions of dollars in ransoms.

Sabaya, who has already killed several captives and has claimed to have beheaded one of the three Americans he is holding captive, said he would kill more if the government refuses.

Speaking by satellite telephone to The Associated Press from the jungles of Basilan island in the southern Philippines, he specifically mentioned Martin Burnham, whose wife, Gracia, was also kidnapped.

``If we chop off the heads of people like Mr. Burnham, the Americans would intervene, and so would the Arabs and (Osama) bin Laden's groups. What will happen then to the Philippines?'' Sabaya said. ``This problem would never end. Actually, many more of these (attacks) could happen.''

The Philippine government has said the Abu Sayyaf gets at least some backing from Osama bin Laden, the wealthy Saudi accused of masterminding terrorist attacks.

Referring to the hostages, Sabaya said: ``They're OK. We have divided them into different groups.''

He said he will only issue a list of demands once former Malaysian senator Sairin Karno, Malaysian merchant Yusof Hamdan and Filipino official Farrouk Hussein are brought in to mediate.

But the Malaysians told the AP they had no desire to get further involved.

``We refuse,'' Yusof said. ``We've been trying to help in a nice way, but some people misinterpret what we've been trying to do. Some say we're favoring only the release of Muslim hostages. We want everybody released, and we're not doing this for money.''

Philippine government spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao expressed strong concern over the new rebel threats and opposed any role by the Malaysians on the hostage crisis, calling it a purely domestic affair.

``I don't think they should get involved in the negotiations,'' Tiglao told reporters. ``It will just complicate the matter.''

The U.S. Embassy issued a statement calling the choice of negotiators a decision for the Philippine government.

``The United States government continues to hold the Abu Sayyaf group responsible for harm that may come to the American hostages,'' the statement said. ``We call for the safe, immediate and unconditional release of the innocent persons being held.''

Sabaya had demanded earlier that the two Malaysians get involved, threatening to kill Guillermo Sobero of Corona, Calif., otherwise. Faced with that deadline, the government agreed to allowing Sairin's intervention, but Sabaya claimed to have killed Sobero anyway after government troops clashed with his men.

Although Sobero's body has not been found, Sabaya repeated Monday that he was dead. But after originally saying he videotaped the slaying, Sabaya said he had only still photographs that he hoped to sell.

Sabaya refused to say if he was still on Basilan, where thousands of troops are pursuing his men.

``I think they will just get tired looking for us,'' Sabaya said. ``Even in a month's time they would not be able to locate us.''

The military said troops clashed briefly Sunday with the rebels, but there was no sign of the captives. It was the first contact with the Abu Sayyaf in more than a week, and the military said it was meant to divert them from the main guerrilla group holding the hostages.

Two other Muslim separatist groups, a group of Muslim clerics and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, have criticized the kidnappings and slayings.

Sabaya said he didn't care.

``If fighting for our rights is being a terrorist, yes we're terrorists,'' he said. ``We're not afraid of being condemned by the whole world as long as we're not condemned by Islam.''

He also denied seeking ransom this time.

``I'm saying our demand is not money. If it was only for money, we made money from Sipadan,'' Sabaya said, referring the April 2000 abduction that reportedly yielded the rebels millions of dollars in ransom. ``Our principles are more expensive. The main reason here is freedom.''

Sabaya said he could not put any of the hostages on the phone because he had climbed a mountain to get better reception. He traditionally has telephoned Radio Mindanao Network to make statements, but the government has discouraged the station from airing his comments as part of a news blackout.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has offered $2 million for the capture of Abu Sayyaf leaders. They have two options, she said: surrender or die.

``That has no effect, her threats of us being pulverized,'' Sabaya said. Even if he or other Abu Sayyaf leaders are killed, he said, ``The group lives on.''
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