Philippine Military Confirms Death of Top Al Qaeda-Linked Militant

A top Al Qaeda-linked militant accused of masterminding the kidnapping of three Americans who was long wanted by U.S. and Philippine authorities has been killed, the military said Wednesday.

Jainal Antel Sali Jr., popularly known as Abu Sulaiman -- a top leader of the Abu Sayyaf rebel group -- was fatally shot in a fierce gunbattle Tuesday in a clash with army special forces, military chief Gen. Hermogenes Esperon said.

Sulaiman is the highest-ranking Abu Sayyaf commander killed by U.S.-backed troops. Washington had offered up to $5 million for his capture.

"We have resolved that this group and their major commanders must be finished off, that this notorious group should see its end," Esperon told a news conference.

Sulaiman allegedly helped plot a February 2004 bombing that triggered a ferry fire, killing 116 people in Southeast Asia's second-worst terror attack.

He also was accused of masterminding the kidnapping of three Americans and Filipino tourists from the southeastern island of Palawan in 2001.

One of the Americans, Guillermo Sobero, was beheaded. American missionary Gracia Burnham was wounded and rescued by army commandos after a year in jungle captivity, but her husband, Martin, was killed during the operation.

The kidnappings prompted Philippine authorities to allow the deployment of U.S. troops in the southern Mindanao region to train and arm Filipino soldiers working to wipe out the resilient Abu Sayyaf.

On Tuesday, army forces raided Sulaiman's camp, sparking a three-hour gunbattle through dense forests, said regional army spokesman Maj. Eugene Batara. Other insurgents escaped but troops are chasing them, Batara said.

Villagers on the mountainous southern island of Jolo, a rebel informant and one of the wives of the slain rebel identified his body after the clash between the army's 8th Special Forces Company and about 60 Abu Sayyaf gunmen, about 590 miles south of Manila, Esperon said.

Esperon displayed a picture of the slain militant, then stood up to scribble an `x' mark across Sulaiman's face in a U.S. poster of most-wanted terror suspects.

Esperon said that Sulaiman's death could set off retaliatory attacks, but that the military was ready to thwart any such assaults.

"I believe the activities of the Abu Sayyaf will go down considerably," Esperon said.

Sulaiman, a 41-year-old civil engineer, began his activism by joining the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a Muslim separatist group that signed a peace accord with the government in 1996.

He broke off from the MNLF due to the accord's signing and decided to work in Saudi Arabia for a few years building highways and buildings, according to police intelligence reports. In the late 1990s, he returned home and joined the Abu Sayyaf.

Having once been a builder, Sulaiman was asked by The Associated Press last year in a telephone interview why he would want to destroy.

He said their attacks were retribution for the many atrocities committed against Muslims worldwide. "I know that being once a builder of things would make me more efficient in destroying them," he said.