The incident was a blow to the Philippine government, which had said just weeks ago it was shifting some resources away from the war on Abu Sayyaf because the group had been decimated and was on the run. Officials had warned, however, the group could not be written off. They noted at least eight top leaders were at large and said it would be a daunting task to boost the economy of the Muslim-dominated southern Philippines, where harsh poverty fuels anti-government sentiment.
The kidnapping Tuesday on the troubled southern island of Jolo was the first by Abu Sayyaf guerrillas since American soldiers arrived in February on a six-month mission to train Filipino troops in counterterrorism tactics. It was the first U.S. operation outside the Afghanistan front in Washington's war on international terrorist groups.
Officials initially reported that eight Filipinos were abducted, but two - the only Muslims and local residents in the group - returned home Wednesday, saying they spent the night with relatives and were surprised by the attention. Police were investigating.
The police chief for Sulu province, Col. Ahiron Ajirim, said two men with pistols stopped a vehicle carrying five women and three men who were selling cosmetics. Ajirim said the driver was left behind and identified one kidnapper as Muin Maulod Sahiron, a nephew of local Abu Sayyaf leader Radullan Sahiron. The one-armed rebel is regarded by many residents as a Robin Hood who travels by horse and brandishes an Uzi submachine gun.
Officials would not speculate why the hostages were targeted. A police report said the six captives were Jehovah's Witnesses, but said officers found no evidence they were trying to promote their religion in the predominantly Muslim area.
Ajirim said police found boxes of Avon cosmetics in their vehicle. Avon Products Inc., the world's largest direct seller of beauty products, has thousands of sales agents in the Philippines, although a spokesman at the company's New York headquarters, Victor Beaudet, said the abductees were not employees or official Avon representatives.
About 1,200 American soldiers had been in the region training Filipinos troops and providing logistical and intelligence support for the Philippine army's offensive against Abu Sayyaf. The U.S. mission ended officially three weeks ago, although a few Americans remained on nearby Basilan island, to finish construction projects.
U.S. Navy Adm. Thomas B. Fargo, chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, had said the military campaign left Abu Sayyaf "in disarray and on the run, unable to find the money or the time to eat, rest and resupply."
The rebels on Jolo, an island about 560 miles south of Manila, are from a different Abu Sayyaf faction than the one on Basilan and suffered less from the army's campaign. The vice mayor of Patikul, Esmon Suhuri, said the Philippine troops shelled nearby suspected Abu Sayyaf hide-outs Tuesday night in the area's first shooting in months. Residents heard at least 10 ground-shaking blasts. Two helicopter gunships flew over the area Wednesday looking for signs of the guerrillas.
The Philippines has been plagued by kidnap-for-ransom gangs in recent years, causing a drop in tourism and economic activity nationwide. The stock market fell 2.1 percent after reports of the latest kidnapping, which comes amid worries about the government's widening budget deficit.
Last month, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ordered police to wipe out 21 kidnap gangs within a year. The list did not include Abu Sayyaf, which is primarily the military's responsibility.
Abu Sayyaf guerrillas often demand ransom, but also use poor hostages as slave laborers and human shields. Some women captives have been forced to marry guerrillas. The previous Abu Sayyaf kidnapping spree ended June 7 when U.S.-trained soldiers tried to rescue the last of 102 captives: missionaries Gracia and Martin Burnham of Wichita, Kan., and Filipino nurse Ediborah Yap. Mrs. Burnham was freed, but her husband and Yap died in the battle.
A Filipino man is still being held from another Abu Sayyaf mass kidnapping two years ago from a tourist resort in the neighboring nation of Malaysia.