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01 December 2000 - AP

Philippine Muslim Rebels Claim Spokesman Is Dead

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AP)--Muslim rebels holding an American and a Filipino hostage in the southern Philippines claimed Friday their spokesman had apparently been killed in a boat accident.

But police and military officials said they doubted the claim and said it might be an attempt by the Abu Sayyaf rebels to reduce the pressure of a government military offensive.

A rebel official, Abu Cantada, said a boat carrying a group of guerrillas capsized Thursday night off southern Jolo island after battling huge waves caused by a tropical storm.

Rebel spokesman Abu Sabaya, who heads the guerrilla faction that has been holding American hostage Jeffrey Schilling, wasn't found after the accident, Cantada said.

"We were on our way to Tawi-Tawi province ... when we encountered huge waves and strong winds. The boat capsized and everybody was accounted for except Abu Sabaya," Cantada said in a telephone interview with the Radio Mindanao Network.

Cantada said Schilling wasn't with them and that he is now in the custody of rebel chieftain Khadaffy Janjalani in an undisclosed hide-out.

Provincial police chief Candido Casimiro said police were still checking the report.

"So far, we don't have any confirmation of this, but we are checking all reports. Meanwhile, government operations against the Abu Sayyaf are still going on," he said.

The military's Southern Command said it also was checking the report.

"We have intensified the offensive operation against the rebels, and the government rescue efforts to get Schilling are also ongoing," Southern Command spokesman Army Col. Hilario Atendido said.

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