MANILA, Philippines - The Philippine military came under increased pressure Tuesday to rescue more than 20 foreign hostages after their Muslim extremist captors beheaded a Canadian man, but troops face a dilemma in how to succeed and also ensure the safety of the remaining captives.
Abu Sayyaf gunmen beheaded John Ridsdel on Monday in the southern densely forested province of Sulu, sparking condemnations and prompting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to pledge to help the Philippines pursue the extremists behind the "heinous act."
Trudeau said he was "outraged" by the news.
"Canada condemns without reservation the brutality of the hostage takers and this unnecessary death," Trudeau said in a hastily assembled appearance before the media Monday in the midst of a cabinet retreat.
"This was an act of cold-blooded murder and responsibility rests squarely with the terrorist group who took him hostage."
Ridsdel's head, which was placed in a plastic bag, was dumped by motorcycle-riding militants Monday night in Jolo town in impoverished Sulu, about 950 kilometres south of Manila, where the Abu Sayyaf and allied gunmen are believed to be holding 22 foreign hostages from six countries.
Trudeau said the Canadian government is committed to working with the Philippine government and international partners to "pursue those responsible for this heinous act and bring them to justice."
On behalf of all Canadians, he also expressed his "deepest condolences" to Ridsdel's family and friends.
"They have endured a terrible ordeal and this is a devastating moment for all of them."
In past militant videos posted online, Ridsdel and fellow Canadian Robert Hall, Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad and Filipino Marites Flor were shown sitting in a clearing with heavily armed militants standing behind them. In some of the videos, a militant aimed a long knife on Ridsdel's neck as he pleaded for his life. Two black flags with Islamic State group-like markings hung in the backdrop of lush foliage.
The four were seized from a marina on southern Samal Island and taken by boat to Sulu, where Abu Sayyaf gunmen continue to hold several captives, including a Dutch bird watcher, who was kidnapped more than three years ago.
Saying that the safety of Canadian citizens is the first priority of the government, Trudeau said the government will not comment or release any information that might "compromise ongoing efforts or endanger the safety of the remaining hostages."
He did not answer any questions, including whether the government had paid a ransom for Ridsdel or Hall. However, an official said it is long-standing government policy to not pay ransom demands.
It's a politically-sensitive time in the Philippines to carry out major offensives at the height of campaigning in a closely-fought race by four contenders in May 9 presidential elections. President Benigno Aquino III and opposition politicians have had differences over the handling of the Muslim insurgencies and the poverty and social ills that foster it.
"The pressure on the armed forces is really immense," analyst Julkipli Wadi said. "The approach is still conventional and largely detached from the overall political question."
The Philippine military and police said "there will be no letup" in the effort to combat the militants and find the hostages, even though they have had little success in safely securing their freedom. Many hostages were believed to have been released due to huge ransom payments.
"The full force of the law will be used to bring these criminals to justice," they said in a joint statement.
About 2,000 military personnel, backed by Huey and MG520 rocket-firing helicopters and artillery, were involved in the manhunt for the militants, who were believed to be massing in Sulu's mountainous Patikul town, military officials said.
While under pressure to produce results, government troops have been ordered to carry out assaults without endangering the remaining hostages, including in the use of airstrikes and artillery fire, a combat officer told The Associated Press by cellphone from Sulu.
He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.
The Abu Sayyaf began a series of large-scale abductions after it emerged in the early 1990s as an offshoot of a separatist rebellion by minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation's south.
It has been weakened by more than a decade of Philippine offensives but has endured largely as a result of large ransom and extortion earnings. The United States and the Philippines have both listed the group as a terrorist organization.
Ridsdel was remembered Monday by a lifelong friend of the former mining executive and journalist who grew up with him in Yorkton, Saskatchewan as a brilliant, compassionate man with a talent for friendship.
"He could bridge many communities, many people, many situations and circumstances and environments in a very gentle way," said Gerald Thurston.
He said Ridsdel is survived by two adult daughters from a former marriage.
Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose called news of Ridsdel's execution "shocking and saddening."
"Incidents like this should remind all of us that the threat of terrorism remains very real," she said in a statement.
"We must stand with our allies in solidarity against terrorism, which remains the greatest challenge that the world faces today."
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair called on the Trudeau government to do everything possible to rescue the other hostages and declared that "we stand united in condemning this outrageous and despicable act."
"Tragic events like this must not lessen our diplomatic resolve to work towards peace across the world," Mulcair added in a statement.
— with files from The Associated Press