Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Islamic terrorists in the Philippines allowed an American hostage to speak publicly for the first time in five months Monday, then warned the country's government that he and his wife would be killed if a military offensive is not called off.
"The message from the [terrorists] is that Americans everywhere are in danger," Christian missionary Martin Burnham said in a message broadcast by a local radio station, dxRZ. "We have been targeted because we are Americans."
The government responded to the threats by announcing that its campaign to crush the terrorists and rescue the hostages would continue.
Martin and Gracia Burnham were abducted by members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) from a beach resort last May, along with a third American - Californian tourist Guillermo Sobero - and 19 Filipinos. Sobero was later beheaded, his remains found just last week.
The captives are being held on the Muslim-dominated island of Basilan in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic Philippines.
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo vowed to free the hostages and smash the ASG, launching concerted military strikes against its jungle strongholds.
But Burnham Monday urged the government to call off the rescue attempts. He said he and his wife were very weak, and were kept bound and closely guarded so they had no chance of escape, unlike the Filipino captives.
ASG leader Abu Sabaya, who also spoke on the radio, warned that the hostages could be killed before a planned visit by Arroyo to Washington next month unless the assault was called off and negotiations begun.
Arroyo is scheduled to meet President Bush during the November 18-20 visit.
"We will execute Martin and Gracia if they do not stop this rescue operation," Abu Sabaya said, adding that Arroyo could be taking their bodies back to the U.S. with her, which "would be very embarrassing."
"I hope the ransom for Martin and Gracia is being prepared. If they [the authorities] are sincere, this could be settled amicably," he said. Local media report that the group is demanding $2 million for their freedom.
The ASG, which is believed to have links to Osama bin Laden, claims to be fighting for an Islamic state in the southern Philippines, although their activities have mostly taken the form of kidnappings for ransom.
Abu Sabaya sought to justify the kidnappings by criticizing U.S. policies in the Middle East, saying "we did this because they are supporting Israel in oppressing the Palestinians. No Americans are safe unless this problem is solved."
Bin Laden has made similar statements in televised messages released since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington last month, for which the U.S. holds him primarily responsible.
Responding to the developments, Arroyo issued an appeal in Manila Monday to the ASG to spare the missionaries' lives.
"The Burnhams have spent their lives in the service of the Almighty and do not deserve to be pawns in a propaganda war," she said. "To harm defenseless people is not only an act against Islam but an act of cowardice."
Arroyo also expressed admiration for the Burnhams' "courage in their nightmarish ordeal."
A government-appointed negotiator has been instructed to step up efforts to communicate with ASG leaders about the unconditional handing over of the hostages.
Nonetheless, the president's national security advisor Roilo Golez said Monday, the assault would continue.
"The reason the military is there is because of the hostages," he told a media briefing. "As long as the Abu Sayyaf have the hostages, the military offensive will continue."
Golez said the assault was bearing fruit, reporting that in fierce fighting Sunday, 10 terrorists had been killed, three captured, and four Filipino hostages rescued.
Philippines military spokesman Brig.-Gen. Edilberto Adan said the ASG should be destroyed, calling its members "murderers, rapists [and] terrorists."
"Now that we have them cornered ... and their end is near, under no conditions are we going to stop our military operations. If we stop our military operations and allow them to escape, the whole world will laugh at us," he said.
It was reported earlier that the U.S. would be advising the Philippines on dealing with the ASG, which terrorism specialists believe was set up with the help of bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, and may still maintain links.
Golez made it clear American forces would not be directly involved in the operation in Basilan, but could provide intelligence and equipment.
The Burnhams, both in their 40s and from Wichita, Kansas, are attached to New Tribes Mission.
Staff at the Sanford, Fla.-based missionary organization could not be reached for comment late Monday, but a short statement released earlier said NTM had been encouraged to hear Burnham's voice, and prayed for the eventual safe release of all of the hostages.
The State Department last week issued an alert warning Americans to exercise great caution throughout the Philippines, because of the danger of kidnappings for ransoms and other problems.
"While this ongoing terrorist/criminal campaign of kidnapping foreigners is in progress, Americans should defer travel to beach resorts in the southern Philippines, especially those located away from urban areas," it said.
U.S. To Help Philippines Tackle Bin Laden-Linked Terrorists (Oct. 11, 2001)
Backgrounder: Is Bin Laden Linked to Philippines Mayhem? (May 9, 2000)