MANILA, Philippines – Philippine troops captured seven suspected Muslim militants Wednesday, including the leader of a group of Islamic converts linked to the kidnappings of foreigners and an alleged plot to bomb the U.S. Embassy (search), officials said.
Hilarion del Rosario Santos III (search), the alleged leader of the Rajah Solaiman Revolutionary Movement, was arrested with his wife and five other people while they were sleeping in a hideout in southern Zamboanga city. Officials said the arrests thwarted new bombing plots by the group.
Another suspected member of the movement escaped from the hideout, where authorities found an M-16 rifle with a silencer, 49 anti-tank rockets, bomb parts and two computers, authorities said.
"This is definitely a big catch," Lt. Gen. Edilberto Adan, commander of the military's Southern Command (search), told The Associated Press by telephone.
Santos' group allegedly hid about 1,322 pounds of explosives, including TNT, that the military seized in a hideout in Manila's Fairview residential district in March. Soldiers arrested a brother of Santos in connection with the seizure, military officials said.
National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales said the explosives appeared to be intended for a 2,204-pound truck bomb that militants planned to use against the U.S. Embassy. That plot, along with other planned bombings by the group in the capital, was foiled with the seizure of the explosives, he said.
Santos' group, composed mostly of Christians from the main northern Luzon island who have converted to Islam, is believed to have forged an alliance with the Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah — two al Qaeda-linked groups suspected of bombings in the Philippines and Southeast Asia, police intelligence officials said.
Abu Sayyaf rebels and Filipino Islamic converts trained by Jemaah Islamiyah bomb experts from Indonesia are suspected of last year's bombing that ignited an inferno aboard a ferry, killing 116 people in the country's worst terrorist attack.
Santos is believed to have received bomb training from Jemaah Islamiyah in the southern Philippines in 2000, said police official Rodolfo Mendoza.
He has also been implicated in the kidnappings of 21 tourists and workers from the Malaysian resort of Sipadan in 2000, according to the military. The Abu Sayyaf, which is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, was blamed for the kidnappings.
Authorities have been concerned about the emergence of Santos' group and other organizations of Muslim converts, saying they could expand the reach and bolster the strength of the Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah. Both groups have been hurt by arrests and setbacks dealt by U.S.-backed military offensives in the southern Philippines in recent years.