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State Department Cannot Confirm Identity of Decapitated Torso Found in Philippines

Aired June 12, 2001 - 13:23   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to get you to the State Department, where questions are being asked about the American who has been killed in the Philippines. Phil Reeker, the spokesman, addressing reporters today.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

PHIL REEKER, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: but at this point I cannot confirm the identity of that body. We are, of course, consulting and cooperating closely with the government of the Philippines.

Let me just say that the murder of an innocent person is a cowardly act, and we condemn in the strongest possible terms this reported action. We hold the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group responsible for the safety and welfare of all the people it's holding, and we call for the safe, immediate and unconditional release of all the innocent persons being held.

So while I can't provide you anymore details on that at this point, we are working actively with the government of the Philippines and we'll continue to keep you posted as we have developments.

QUESTION: Can you tell us any kind of background on the Abu Sayyaf group? Do we know about their international connections?

REEKER: Well, I would refer you to the "Patterns of Global Terrorism" report that you're very familiar with.

REEKER: As that report states, the Abu Sayyaf is the smallest and most radical of the Islamic separatist groups, operating in the southern Philippines. They've engaged in bombings, assignations, and, as we've seen, kidnappings and extortions to promote an independent Islamic state in western Mindanao. They've kidnapped more than 30 foreigners beginning in 1995, and that has continued, including the current situation that also involves American citizens.

So, again, we condemn this action. Our terrorism report has made that quite clear, what we think about that group, and the sort of gruesome reports that are coming out of the Philippines at this point only underscore our observations and feelings about that group.

QUESTION: It's obviously the middle of the night there, but do you happen to know when the last contact the embassy had with Philippine officials was?

REEKER: I don't have a specific time. It's an ongoing contact. We keep in close contact with the Philippine officials on this while they have the lead in pursuing the situation.

I'd also note that we've remained in regular contact with the families of the American citizens involved, Mr. Sobero and Mr. and Ms. Burnham, throughout the ordeal and we continue to be in touch with them on a regular basis.

QUESTION: Do you know then when you were told by the Philippine authorities that they had found this...

REEKER: I don't have an exact time for you. It was sometime today.

QUESTION: You mentioned one body. Some reports say two. Are you sure there's only one that you've been informed of?

REEKER: I've seen various conflicting reports. What I understand is that there has been a torso discovered. We are not able to provide an identification, a positive identification, of that body and as far as some of the other reports, I just don't have anything further.

QUESTION: OK. Just a couple of points without wishing to be too gruesome.

REEKER: Yes.

QUESTION: When you say "torso", does that imply that it has lost more than just its head?

REEKER: I think we'll just let you do the definitions. We're talking about a body here, and we're not going to get into gruesome or graphic details at this point.

QUESTION: OK. Now, when it comes to identification, do the Philippine authorities have enough identification details to enable them to quickly identify the bodies of any of the kidnapped Americans?

REEKER: I'll let you ask that question of them. We're working closely with them, and should they need assistance in that regard, we would certainly be ready to help in terms of help there. But that's a question best directed to them. Up to this point, we're not able to make a positive identification on the body that was found.

QUESTION: Do you know -- have they asked for that in relation to this body that they...

REEKER: I don't have any further details on that.

More questions on the Philippines?

QUESTION: So what is the U.S. government doing to help free (OFF-MIKE) REEKER: We're working actively with the government of the Philippines, and as I said, I'm not going to get into specifics on that for a variety of reasons, some of them I think quite obvious.

As I said, this torso has been found, and we're working with the government of the Philippines to identify the person, determine the circumstances surrounding that death, and at this point I just don't have any further details.

QUESTION: Are there any plans to send any officials from Washington at this point?

REEKER: I don't have any details of anybody from Washington going out there. Our embassy is the locus, obviously, for our coordination with the government of the Philippines, and I just don't have any further details.

QUESTION: If it was confirmed to be an American, what are the options? What possible...

REEKER: That's a hypothetical question, and I'm just not prepared to address that at this point. QUESTION: You said you were letting the Philippine government take the lead. Would you support them in a military action or in a ransom payment, or anything...

REEKER: Again, that's a hypothetical question. You know our position on ransom. That's been quite clear. We do not pay ransom. And I just don't have anything to add at this point.

QUESTION: I know, originally, they were going on what the Abu Sayyaf spokesman said in the radio interview. Have they made any communications about the rest of the Americans that they're holding?

REEKER: There are no other communications that I'm aware of, but I don't have any further details.

QUESTION: And I know that you said to look up the definition of "torso," but there are several definitions of the word, because actually we did look it up.

REEKER: I'll leave it to your imagination then.

QUESTION: Yes, but, I mean...

REEKER: I'm not going to provide you details from here on the condition of the body. That's something we want to examine as part of obviously the forensics that has to take place.

QUESTION: Is there a bin Laden connection to this group?

REEKER: I'd refer you to the "Patterns of Global Terrorism" report.

WATERS: All right, the State Department's Phil Reeker delivering the State Department's condemnation of the action in the Philippines and the group, Abu Sayyaf, after a torso was found. This group, a Muslim group, promoting an Islamic state in the Philippines, had been holding a number of hostages. The torso was believed to be American, but there is some confusion over this.

Andrea Koppel, our State Department correspondent, we know some bodies have been found, but what the State Department is saying, what the Philippines are now -- Philippine government is now saying appears to be in conflict. Do you know where we are on this story?

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Well, Lou, as I understand it, the national security adviser in the Philippines has told CNN that in fact, Philippine authorities have found what they are calling two human torsos. They were searching for the head of the American tourist who Abu Sayyaf claims to have beheaded yesterday and found two human torsos. They say that those torsos, however, were not American. They are believed to be Filipino.

Now, as we just heard Philip Reeker say there, the U.S. has information that leads it to believe there was only one torso. But really, what this about, Lou, is that Abu Sayyaf said yesterday that it had beheaded 40-year-old Guillermo Sobero, an American tourist from California, and that his head could be found in one part of the Philippine island.

So, authorities have been searching, hoping that they wouldn't find this, and as things stand right now, State Department officials saying they cannot confirm that, in fact, this beheading took place, which is certainly a relief to his family members.

Now, having said that, there are allegedly two other American tourists who are being held, along with several dozen other Filipinos and other foreign people who were basically detained by Abu Sayyaf, basically taken hostage by them, and there is this stand-off right now.

So, people have been waiting sort of with fingers crossed, hoping against hope that Abu Sayyaf's claim to have beheaded this American would turn out, as it has in the past, to have been false -- Lou.

WATERS: Andrea, if I were a member of Mr. Sobero's family now, I'd be going half crazy. Is there American representation over there trying to clear this matter up?

KOPPEL: Well, of course, the U.S. has an embassy in Manila. It doesn't have an American ambassador there. It does have the second- in-charge, the charge d'affaires, who is running the show over there. But as things stand right now, the U.S. is saying that the Philippine government has the lead. After all, this happened on a Philippine island, the tourists were taken hostage on vacation on the Philippine islands, so they say it's more appropriate to have the Philippine government take the lead in the investigation and in trying to free these hostages. But having said that, the U.S. is providing the Philippine government with intelligence.

WATERS: All right, Andrea Koppel at the State Department. We'll be keeping close touch as this story develops. We'll get back to you. TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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