MANILA -- A southern Philippines court sentenced 17 members of the Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf militant group to death yesterday for kidnapping nurses from a hospital there three years ago.
Only 13 of the convicts were at the courthouse in Isabela, capital of the southern Basilan island, where a clerk read the ruling that described a kidnapping spree that began with the mass abduction of more than 50 pupils, teachers, and a priest in 2000 and continued with the taking of 17 Filipino tourists and three Americans a year later. Two of those Americans died.
The four other convicts escaped during a mass jailbreak from the Basilan provincial prison earlier this year and were sentenced in absentia.
Also yesterday, military helicopters using machine guns and rockets pounded the suspected hideout of a heavily armed kidnap gang elsewhere in the southern Philippines, killing at least 15 gunmen, police and the military said.
Colonel Franklin del Prado, spokesman for the army's Sixth Infantry Division, said about 20 members of the Pentagon gang were believed to be hiding in Lumabao, about 600 miles southeast of Manila, together with chieftain Tahir Alonto, who carries a $17,800 bounty on his head. It was not known whether Alonto was killed.
The Pentagon group, linked to many ransom kidnappings on the main southern island of Mindanao, and the Abu Sayyaf are both on a US list of terrorist organizations.
Pentagon members are holding two Filipino hostages, but it was unclear whether the captives were in the same village.
Abu Sayyaf guerrillas raided a Basilan hospital in the town of Lamitan on June 2, 2001, to get medicine. Soldiers surrounded the building and the rebels took three female nurses and a male hospital clerk hostage to aid their escape.
Nearly a year later, the extremist Muslim group abducted missionary couple Martin and Gracia Burnham, of Wichita, Kan., Guillermo Sobero of Corona, Calif., and 17 Filipinos from a resort on western Palawan island and took them by speedboat to southern Basilan island. Sobero was among several hostages beheaded.
Two nurses and the clerk later escaped. Another nurse, Ediborah Yap, was killed more than a year later during a military rescue operation in which Martin Burnham also died. His wife, Gracia, was wounded but was rescued and testified during the rebels' trial.
Prosecutor Ricardo Cabaron said each of the 17 Abu Sayyaf members received three death penalties for kidnapping the women. They were additionally sentenced to life imprisonment for kidnapping the male clerk.
''They will also be tried in other cases where they also participated," he said, referring to other kidnappings and killings.
The rebels separately abducted 25 Basilan farmers to help them carry weapons and equipment and later beheaded 12 of them, he said.
One of the convicts, Bashir Mandangan, expressed defiance, raising his fist and shouting, ''Allahu Akbar!" or ''God is Great!", when the verdict was handed down in the packed courtroom.
''No problem," he told reporters. ''They can kill me 10 times, tell that to your government."
Executions in the Philippines are carried out by lethal injection.
Police and soldiers armed with assault rifles used three Simba armored personnel carriers to block roads leading to the courthouse. US-backed offensives have dislodged the guerrillas from their jungle lairs on Basilan. Philippine officials now consider the group a spent force, down from about 1,000 guerrillas four years ago to about 300.