ZAMBOANGA, Philippines Minutes before a deadline by Muslim extremists to behead an American hostage, the Philippine government dropped its objection to bringing in a Malaysian negotiator.
As the noon deadline passed, Abu Sayyaf leader Abu Sabaya called in by satellite telephone to a local radio station, saying he may postpone the execution if the Malaysian government confirms it will allow a senator to enter the negotiations.
But he also issued a veiled threat against a massive military search.
"If what they say is true that they will contact the Malaysian government and let Sairin (Karno) come in, and remove the military operation, we may postpone the beheading," Sabaya said. "But if the government continues to invade, it's up to them."
The government went on national radio as the clock was ticking down to the deadline.
"We do not object to Sairin Karno joining the negotiations," Philippine presidential spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao said. "If the (Malaysian government) allows him, we will permit him to join. We want to show our sincerity. We appeal on them not to harm the hostages; they have parents and children, just like them."
The last-minute flurry of activity followed a rebel attack on a plantation that left an unknown number of children and two adults hostage.
Officials said the group's three American hostages may have been dragged along with the attackers.
"I hope they don't touch the children," said Tahira Ishmail, mayor-elect of Lantawan town on the southern island of Basilan, who reported the incident occurred nearby and involved both Muslim and Christian children. "They're innocent. They don't know what's going on."
Col. Hermogenes Esperon, army brigadier commander on Basilan island, said some children were taken in the raid on the 1,200-acre coconut and coffee plantation along with one of the owners and a security guard. The rebels also burned a chapel and a hut, he said.
Esperon said troops were on their way to the area to fight the guerrillas.
Sabaya had threatened last Thursday to kill a Californian and a Kansas couple with a vague deadline, then reiterated it in his first call since then to a local radio station Monday morning. The threat was apparently to kill only one hostage, although Sabaya previously threatened to kill more than one of the three Americans he holds in addition to 10 Filipinos on the southern Island of Basilan.