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Philippines captures top al Qaeda-linked militant

By Manuel Mogato

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine security forces captured on Wednesday a top al Qaeda-linked Islamist wanted by the United States and involved in the kidnapping of Western tourists, and hailed the arrest as a major blow to his militant network.

The Christian-majority Philippines has a Muslim minority largely based in its resource-rich southern islands where Muslim rebels have been fighting for autonomy for years.

The head of military intelligence, Major-General Eduardo Ano, said the captured militant, Khair Mundos, was an expert bomb-maker and the "spiritual leader" of the Abu Sayyaf faction, which rose to notoriety early last decade by kidnapping foreigners.

"This is a big blow to their organisation," Ano told reporters. "They lost one of their leaders and they now feel insecure. We will try to get them one after another, we will not stop."

The United States had offered a $500,000 bounty for the arrest of Mundos. The Philippines offered 5 million pesos ($114,400) for his re-capture after he escaped from prison in 2007.

Mundos fled from the southern Philippines as security forces closed in on him and had been in hiding for months with relatives in the Manila suburb of Paranaque City, Ano said.

Soldiers and policemen swooped on his hideout and grabbed him early on Wednesday. Security forces seized four guns as well as training manuals used by the Indonesian militant group Jemaah Islamiah.

"We finally tracked him down," said Benjamin Magalong, head of police criminal investigation group. "This is a product of two months surveillance work."

Mundos had raised funds for the Abu Sayyaf in the Middle East and funneled money from al Qaeda for bombings in the southern Philippines before his first arrest in 2004.

In 2001, Mundos bought a speed boat used in a raid on a Philippine island resort in which several tourists, including three Americans, were kidnapped. One American woman was rescued a year later but two Americans including her husband were killed.

The militants are currently holding three people from China, one from Japan, one from the Netherlands, one Swiss and two Germans, Philippine officials say.

(Editing by Robert Birsel)

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