ZAMBOANGA CITY, January 8, 2003 (STAR) By Roel Pareņo  - Top commanders of the Abu Sayyaf Islamist group have started to consolidate their remaining forces in the island province of Sulu, a ranking military official said here yesterday.

"Most of the top commanders of the Abu Sayyaf are there in Sulu. Most of them fled to the island province due to the continuous pressure and offensive our forces are putting on Basilan," Armed Forces Southern Command chief Lt. Gen. Narciso Abaya said.

Abaya, however, did not elaborate if the presence of the ranking Abu Sayyaf commanders in Sulu could be part of the reinforcement for bandits being hunted down by government troopers.

He pointed out the bandit group sustained heavy casualties last week after the military stormed a known Sayyaf hideout in Maimbung town, leaving several suspected bandits killed and wounded.

He said the series of encounters and intelligence monitoring indicate the bandit leaders have fled to Sulu from Basilan.

"This does not mean we will thin out our forces in Basilan and rush to the area. We would continue to press on them in Basilan while (the) offensives in Sulu continue," Abaya said.

Citing security reasons, Abaya declined to identify the names of the Abu Sayyaf leaders who regrouped with their remaining forces in Sulu.

"Those who fled Basilan felt the intense pressure and felt that their days are numbered. Now that they are in Sulu, the more misery we will give them," he said. "They thought they could lure our forces there and come back to Basilan."

The military is still hunting down the remaining leaders of the bandit group led by Khaddafi Janjalani, Galib Andang alias Kumander Robot, Mujib Susukan, Radulah Sahiron and Umbra Jumdail alias Dr. Abu Pula.

The US government, through its Rewards for Justice program, has put up a $5-million reward for any information leading to the capture of the remaining bandit leaders.

The US has included Abu Sayyaf on the list of supposed terror organizations. There are now 219 groups, entities and individuals in the terror list drawn up by the US State Department which is updated periodically.

Following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, the US Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and included the Abu Sayyaf in their list of "foreign terrorist organization."

Some intelligence services believe the Abu Sayyaf has direct links with al-Qaeda, the terror network of international fugitive Osama bin Laden, held responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.

Last year, US judicial authorities led by Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson announced the indictment of the Abu Sayyaf leaders for the kidnapping and murder of Americans.

The Abu Sayyaf has been held responsible for the kidnapping and murder of several Filipinos, Americans, and other foreign tourists since April 2000.

Among the Americans who fell victim to the Abu Sayyaf included Jeffrey Schilling, held hostage for seven months after walking into a bandit camp, spouses Martin and Gracia Burnham and Guillermo Sobero, who were kidnapped in Dos Palmas resort in Palawan.

Schilling walked to freedom during Holy Week of 2001, while Gracia Burnham was rescued last June in Zamboanga del Norte in an operation in which Martin and Filipino nurse Edibora Yap were killed.

Sobero was beheaded by the bandits as an "Independence Day gift" to President Arroyo in 2001.

All rights reserved