ZAMBOANGA, Philippines – A yearlong hostage crisis came to a bloody end Friday after a Philippine army team spotted muddy footprints in mountainous jungle and realized they had found the prey they had been chasing for so long.
Ahead were more than two dozen Abu Sayyaf guerrillas and their three remaining captives — an American missionary couple and a Filipino nurse. The troops hoped to rescue all the hostages and wipe out a significant part of what remained of the Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group.
Hours later, those hopes were dashed in a hail of gunfire. Two of the hostages lay dead and one wounded, along with at least seven soldiers.
Pvt. Rene Mabilog was with about 40 Philippine Scout Rangers who first came upon Abu Sayyaf rebels in the jungles of Zamboanga del Norte province.
"We were following them since last night," Mabilog told The Associated Press in a military hospital where he was being treated for arm wounds. "This morning, we found their tracks and we followed them. There were about 30 of them."
Mabilog said the guerrillas stopped to rest under trees because of heavy rain. The soldiers silently crept within about 30 yards, ready for action.
One soldier reported spotting Martin and Gracia Burnham of Wichita, Kan., around 2:30 p.m.
"When we saw that the two Americans were there, our CO (commanding officer) gave us the order to open fire," he said. "We opened fire and they fought back."
The Scout Rangers were soon joined by the hundreds of other elite, U.S.-trained Filipino troops also involved in the search operation on the main island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines.
The firefight raged for about two hours before it tapered off. The troops began a "clearing" maneuver when Cpl. Rodelio Tuazon found Gracia Burnham, 43, lying on a river bank with a gunshot wound to her thigh.
"I saw her lying wounded by a creek," said Tuazon, who was also wounded. "I asked her if she was OK. She just cried."
Mabilog added: "We applied a tourniquet to her wound and carried her away."
Other soldiers reported seeing the lifeless bodies of her husband, Martin Burnham, 42. The body of Filipino nurse Ediborah Yap was recovered later. It was unclear whether they had been shot by rebels or were victims of friendly fire.
Philippine air force Huey helicopters quickly evacuated Mrs. Burnham and seven wounded soldiers to Zamboanga city, where the Philippine military has its Southern Command and a military hospital.
"I could see her face was happy," Mabilog said. "But sometimes she would break into tears. She was clutching their pictures. She had many pictures in her bag that she would look at."
At least four guerrillas were killed in the fighting and officials were still trying to determine whether any were among the five Abu Sayyaf leaders for which the United States has offered a $5 million reward.
"We all know that just finding the hostages is such a difficult job," Southern Command chief Maj. Gen. Ernesto Carolina told the AP. "We are sad for the others, but I think the efforts of our troops have been rewarded."