(CNSNews.com) - After months of backing down under foreign pressure, the Philippines government finally launched a military attack over the weekend against Muslim terrorists who have been holding various groups of foreigners hostage for most of this year, and whose current captives include an American citizen.
As of Monday, however, an assault by 4,000 troops against the Abu Sayyaf group on the southern Philippines island of Jolo had not succeeded in ending the standoff or freeing any of the 22 hostages.
As the terrorists dug deeper into the jungle, the hostages' whereabouts and condition remained unknown. The government reported that at least six rebels and four civilians had been killed in the fighting but said it believed the hostages were alive.
One Manila newspaper reported speculation that U.S. troops were helping the Filipino forces.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer said Caucasian soldiers believed to be "Green Beret commandos" had been seen in Jolo on Sunday.
It quoted a source at army headquarters as confirming that the U.S. military had provided "vital intelligence information" to the government as it prepared its assault.
It was reported last week that a small group of U.S. special forces were taking part in military training exercises with their Philippines counterparts.
At a press conference with his visiting American counterpart William Cohen on Friday, Philippines Defense Secretary Orland Mercado said the two governments were cooperating on the hostage problem but that he could not give details.
Abu Sayyaf is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations. The group is believed to be linked to the Saudi-born businessman and wanted terror suspect, Osama bin Laden.
Its hostages include Jeffrey Schilling, an Oakland Calif. resident who converted to Islam and married a Filipino Muslim.
Abu Sayyaf also holds three Malaysian resort workers seized in a recent raid, two French journalists who entered their base voluntarily despite government warnings, and 16 Filipinos, mostly Christians who entered the terrorists' base to pray for a group of mostly foreign hostages released earlier.
Those earlier hostages were eventually freed in return for a reported $1 million a head, bankrolled by Libya. Under pressure from France, Germany and Finland, whose nationals were among the captives, the Philippines government agreed to a negotiated settlement and declined to use force.
Critics at the time warned the government that the payouts would merely encourage further kidnapping - a view borne out by the subsequent capture of 24-year-old Schilling and the three Malaysians.
French President Jacques Chirac at the weekend criticized the military action, saying "the hostages' safety must remain a priority." The U.S. and Malaysia also expressed concern.
One day before the assault began, Cohen on Friday urged continuing diplomacy, but also said the U.S. would not stand in the way should Manila chose to use force.
Government spokesman Ricardo Puno said in a statement Monday that President Joseph Estrada was looking for international support for its decision to use force.
He said Estrada was asking France for its cooperation, saying the president had taken a lot of flak for failing to use the military option earlier.
Now he expected an international understanding for the action "the government was forced to take to finally resolve the situation."
Puno said the army and police were under presidential orders to "exhaust all means" to safely rescue them.
Acting Foreign Affairs Secretary Franklin Ebdalin was quoted by the Philippine Star as saying while Chirac's concern was understandable the government could no longer give in to France's request to negotiate with Abu Sayyaf.
Abu Sayyaf has reportedly bought new recruits and large numbers of new weapons with the millions received in recent ransom payments. The group is fighting for an independent Islamic state in the south of the mostly Roman Catholic country.
Its demands for freeing the hostages include further ransoms, as well as the release from U.S. prisons of three Arab terrorists jailed for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Lawmakers and Catholic Church leaders have been urging Estrada to attack the kidnappers Sayyaf and end a five-month old crisis which had brought the country into disrepute.
Filipino reaction to the eventual decision to send in the troops has varied. Several hundred demonstrators protested the move in front of the presidential palace on Monday.
But the Philippines Daily Inquirer backed the attack, and urged massive public support for the government and the army.
"The Abu Sayyaf have held the entire nation hostage for far too long. For four long months they dictated their terms, and the government had no choice but to follow, for fear of risking the lives of the hostages," it said in an editorial Monday.
"But there comes a time when one has to say 'Enough is enough,' and hit hard a group that has partly been the cause of the deterioration of the economy, that has practically brought national life to a standstill and that has been the cause of national embarrassment and humiliation."
Several commentators responded dismissively to Chirac's stance.
Philippine Star columnist Maz Soliven said Estrada should tell the "French meddler" to "shut up."
"Because of our Chief Executive's over-patient desire to please the French, the Germans, and the Finns, who nagged him nauseatingly about their hostages, we allowed our nation to be humiliated and sneered at in the international media and in the world's capitals. No more. Enough is enough."