Islamist extremists have beheaded one of three foreigners they abducted from a high-end resort in the strife-torn southern Philippine island group of Mindanao last September, carrying out their threat to execute their hostages if they were not paid 900 million pesos (S$26 million) in ransom.
It was not clear late last night, however, which hostage had been killed.
Unofficial reports sent by security forces from Jolo island, 1,900km south of the capital Manila, said Canadian John Ridsdel was beheaded at around 3pm yesterday in Patikul town on Sulu island.
The reports identified the man who beheaded the Canadian as Ben Takoh Sawadjaan.
Another report, however, said that a severed head, "apparently that of Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad", was found near the gate of the Jolo municipal hall at around 8pm.
The Straits Times learned from another source, however, that the head was actually Mr Ridsdel's.
Mr Ridsdel, 68; Mr Sekkingstad, 56; another Canadian, Mr Robert Hall, 50; and a Filipina, Ms Maritess Flor, 40, were kidnapped on Sept 21 by bandits believed to be with the small but brutal Abu Sayyaf group (ASG) from the Holiday Oceanview Samal resort on Samal island in Davao province.
About two weeks ago, the Abu Sayyaf released a video threatening to begin beheading the three men from yesterday.
With a machete held to their necks, Mr Ridsdel, Mr Sekkingstad and Mr Hall were seen begging their governments to pay a ransom of 300 million pesos for each of them. Ms Flor did not speak.
The group holding them threatened to execute them on April 8 but later moved the deadline to April 25.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino yesterday ordered intensified operations against the Abu Sayyaf in an effort to secure the release of the hostages.
Presidential Communications Operations Office secretary Herminio Coloma said Mr Aquino had issued the order to the acting chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), Lieutenant-General Glorioso Miranda, and to Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Ricardo Marquez.
"Maximum efforts are being exerted by a joint AFP-PNP task group to effect the rescue of four hostages who were kidnapped in Samal island after the ASG announced the possible beheading of one of its hostages," Mr Coloma said.
"This follows intensified anti-ASG operations in Basilan and Sulu in recent weeks."
The Abu Sayyaf, whose chief Isnilon Hapilon has been recognised by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as a "council leader", is known for extortion, kidnappings, beheadings and bombings.
The group was formed by disgruntled Moro Islamic fighters in 1991 with Al-Qaeda funding.