Militants with al-Qaida ties sentenced to life

;MANILA, Philippines (AP) – Fourteen al-Qaida-linked Muslim militants were sentenced to life in prison Thursday for kidnapping a U.S. missionary couple and 18 others, beginning a yearlong jungle ordeal that prompted U.S.-backed offensives against the guerrillas.

Gracia Burnham survived, but her husband Martin was killed during a military rescue in 2002. Another American captive, Guillermo Sobero of Corona, Calif., had been beheaded earlier by the Abu Sayyaf rebels.

Most of the top leaders of the Abu Sayyaf, which orchestrated the abductions at a resort island, have been killed in clashes since the trial opened in 2003. Philippine officials have credited the U.S. counterterrorism training that started in 2002 for many of the battlefield successes.

“We commend the justice system for showing the rule of law,” said Robert Courtney, the Justice Department’s attache at the U.S. Embassy in Manila. He said he would relay the decision to Burnham.

The Burnhams, missionaries for the Florida-based New Tribes Mission, were celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary when they were abducted by the Abu Sayyaf at the upscale Dos Palmas resort on Palawan island in May 2001, and taken by speedboat to southern Basilan island.

The rescue operation also left a Filipino nurse dead, and two Filipino security guards from the resort also were beheaded by the rebels. The other hostages were released or managed to escape.

“The trauma is still very much here. No amount of money can compensate,” said former hostage Buddy Recio, who was held for seven days. “We are still suffering from the nightmare.”

Defendant Toting Hannoh, who was found guilty, struck a defiant note. Asked if this was the end of the Abu Sayyaf, he said: “No, it will become stronger.”