JOLO, Philippines – Muslim extremists linked to the Al Qaeda terror network beheaded two of six Jehovah's Witnesses they kidnapped in the southern Philippines and dumped their heads in a public market, authorities said Thursday.
Brig. Gen. Romeo Tolentino, army commander on the southern island of Jolo, said the heads of the two male hostages were found in bags with notes denouncing them as ``infidels.''
The bags were left at food stands about 100 yards apart at the main market in the town of Jolo. The attached notes called for "jihad" or Islamic holy war, included a passage from the Quran and were written in Arabic and the local Tausug dialect, Tolentino said.
"They did this because they want to punish the nonbelievers of Allah," he said.
The two men were abducted along with four women on Tuesday a few miles outside the town of Jolo in Patikul district, a stronghold of the murderous Abu Sayyaf group that survived a U.S.-backed military campaign to wipe it out.
Police said the hostages had been selling Avon cosmetics, herbal teas and medical supplies on the predominantly Muslim island about 600 miles south of Manila.
Tirso Bendijo, husband of one of the surviving captives, Nori Bendijo, denied newspaper reports that the six were trying to spread their religion.
"They didn't even have religious leaflets," he said. "They were just trying to add some income."
For the second consecutive night, the army on Wednesday shelled suspected Jolo island hideouts of the Abu Sayyaf, known for mass kidnappings of Filipinos and others, including Americans and Europeans. Some have been beheaded.
On Thursday, hundreds of army reinforcements, including elite fighters who received counterterrorism training from U.S. troops this year, arrived in the town of Patikul from other villages on the island.
Tuesday's kidnappings were the first by the Abu Sayyaf since the United States began supporting a Philippine military campaign to eradicate the group in February.
A six-month U.S. military mission in the area ended last month. At that time American and Filipino officials boasted that the Abu Sayyaf had been decimated.
The latest killings and abductions were a major setback for President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's attempts to restore law and order in the Philippines and for Washington's focus on Southeast Asia in its war on terror.
Military spokesman Col. Jose Mendoza denied that the kidnapping shows the Abu Sayyaf still has much power.
"What we have now in Jolo are splinter groups that are saying they are still around," he said. "They staged this abduction because they are feeling the pressure."
Officials said the two dead were Lemuel Bantolo, 21, and Leonel Mantic, of an unknown age.
Mantic's 23-year-old widow, Emily, was feared to be one of the surviving captives along with Bendijo, 41; Cleofe Bantolo, 46; and Flora Bantolo, 40. The relationship between the captive Bantolos and victim Lemuel Bantolo wasn't immediately known.
Police and military officers say the kidnappings were led by Muin Maulod Sahiron, a nephew of Radullan Sahiron who heads the Abu Sayyaf group in Patikul.
Police said two men with pistols stopped a jeep carrying the Jehovah's Witnesses and forced them out on Tuesday. The driver was left behind and alerted authorities. Two other people in the vehicle, who were Muslims, were not taken hostage.
Police also found Avon products and herbal teas in the jeep.
A spokesman at Avon Products Inc.'s New York headquarters, Victor Beaudet, said the abductees were not employees or official Avon representatives.
The Abu Sayyaf has often kidnapped for ransom, but more frequently has abducted poor Filipinos, mostly Christians, to serve for weeks or months as slave labor. Kidnapped women are sometimes forced to marry guerrillas.
On May 27, 2001, Abu Sayyaf rebels raided a tourist resort and abducted three Americans and 17 Filipinos.
Days later, the gang beheaded American Guillermo Sobero from Corona, California. They also beheaded several Filipino hostages.
That kidnapping saga ended on June 7 when U.S.-trained and backed Philippine soldiers tracked down the rebels.
They rescued American missionary Gracia Burnham, but her husband Martin and Filipino nurse Ediborah Yap were killed in the raid.