Manila, Philippines The Muslim extremist group Abu Sayyaf is seeking a $2 million ransom for the release of an American missionary couple, a television station reported Tuesday.
The Philippine network ABS-CBN said it had obtained copies of four letters between rebel leader Abu Sabaya and his sister, who lives on Basilan Island, where the guerrillas have kept Martin and Gracia Burnham of Wichita, Kan., for more than eight months.
"The Abu Sayyaf will not free Martin and Gracia Burnham if they do not receive $2 million," the network reported, citing the letters, which it said were written last month in the native Tausug and Yakan languages.
In past hostage-takings, the Abu Sayyaf has not made public demands for ransom, but Philippine media have said the group did make such demands behind the scenes and that in some cases ransoms were paid.
The Burnhams were among dozens of hostages seized by the Abu Sayyaf, which is thought to have links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, in a wave of kidnappings that began last May 27.
Most of the hostages have escaped or were released. Some, including Guillermo Sobero of Corona, Calif., were beheaded.
Along with the Burnhams, the rebels are still also holding Filipino nurse Deborah Yap in the rugged jungle in the southern Philippines.
On Monday, soldiers recovered the headless body of farmer Rolly Jul in Maluso town on Basilan, allegedly killed by Abu Sayyaf guerrillas who suspected he was a military spy, said Col. Alexander Aleo, army commander on the island.
The guerrillas have eluded about 6,000 soldiers deployed on the southern island to rescue the hostages.
Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes said in a television interview Sunday that Abu Sayyaf strength has dropped from a peak of about 1,200 fighters two years ago to 300. Only about 50 to 70 guerrillas operate on Basilan, he said.
Reyes said more than 950 Abu Sayyaf members have surrendered or were killed in clashes with the military in the last two years, and at least 142 soldiers have died. The guerrillas have seized 140 hostages during that period, including foreign tourists and Malaysian resort workers seized from the Sipadan resort in Malaysia in April 2000, he said.
All but one of the Sipadan hostages have been released, reportedly for millions of dollars in ransom paid by Libya. The Philippines' official policy is not to pay ransoms.