Four Islamic militants captured in Philippines

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AFP) - Security forces have captured four members of the Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group in the southern Philippines, including one accused of the 2002 kidnapping of Christian missionaries who were later beheaded, police said Monday.

It was the latest in a series of reported arrests of senior Abu Sayyaf men as operations against the group are intensified.

Three of the four were arrested in a coastal village near the port city of Zamboanga on Mindanao island on Sunday night, said city police chief Senior Superintendent Angelito Casimiro.

"We recovered from them documents of a plan to kidnap a local businessman and a son of a shipyard owner," Mr Casimiro said. "The plot was thwarted and we have heightened the security alert around the city," he said.

Earlier on the same day, Mr Casimiro said combined military and police intelligence units arrested Sattar Sabtula, an Abu Sayyaf member involved in the 2002 kidnapping of a group of Jehovah's Witness missionaries on the nearby island of Jolo, a rebel stronghold. Two of the missionaries were beheaded while four others were freed after months in captivity following ransom payments, police said.

On June 11 Khair Mundos, listed as one of the "most wanted" terrorists by the US government which put a US$500,000 (S$ 625,000) reward on his head, was captured in a Manila suburb.

A week later two of Mundo's followers, who were linked to various kidnappings for ransom, were captured in Zamboanga.

The Abu Sayyaf is a small gang of Islamic militants blamed for the country's worst terrorist attacks, including a 2004 ferry bombing that left over 100 dead.

Founded in the 1990s with seed money from Al Qaeda, the group has survived over the past decade by drawing support from poor Muslim communities that have become fertile recruiting ground.

The US military has had about 500 troops rotating through the southern Philippines since 2002 to train Filipino soldiers to combat the insurgents.

Despite repeated government claims that the Abu Sayyaf is a spent force, the group remains capable of mounting deadly attacks and kidnappings for ransom, including raids of dive resorts in neighbouring Malaysia.

Last week seven soldiers and 10 Abu Sayyaf gunmen were killed in one of the bloodiest clashes in recent months on Jolo.

The Abu Sayyaf is believed to be holding several foreign hostages on Jolo, including two European bird watchers and a Japanese man who were separately kidnapped in 2010.

The militants also kidnapped a Chinese woman and a Filipina worker from a Malaysian dive resort in April. Both were later freed, allegedly after ransom payments.

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