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Philippine Rebels Mull Release

May 13, 2000

JOLO, Philippines (AP) _ Muslim rebels holding 21 hostages in the Philippine jungle said Saturday that they would consider releasing two ailing captives.

In addition, negotiators said they had reached an ``understanding″ with the Abu Sayyaf rebels that a sick German woman and perhaps even a French man would be freed later in the day.

``There is some kind of understanding, but of course they can always change their mind,″ said negotiator Robert Aventajado. ``Nothing is 100 percent in this kind of situation.″

The Abu Sayyaf rebels’ willingness to consider the release appeared to be a positive shift from a day earlier, when the guerrillas had decided against freeing them.

Abdul Rajab Azzarouq, a former Libyan ambassador to the Philippines who is helping negotiate, left Jolo city Saturday to meet with the rebels to follow up on the possible release, the negotiator said.

Contacts with the rebels, broken since Wednesday, were re-established Friday night when the separatist guerrillas delivered seven letters their captives had written to loved ones.

Azzarouq called the delivery of letters written by the hostages to their loved ones ``a gesture which I hope will lead to a breakthrough.″

But the nearly three-week hostage crisis appeared to be far from over.

The leader of the Abu Sayyaf guerrilla group said the hostages _ who include 10 Westerners _ had been moved by the rebels to a new ``safe place″ much deeper in the mountains of remote Jolo Island. The rebels also rejected the government’s proposed negotiating team, demanding to deal only with people of their own choosing.

If President Joseph Estrada refuses, said rebel leader Abu Escobar, ``we are prepared to hold on to the hostages for a long time.″

Azzarouq met Wednesday with the rebels and asked for two sick hostages _ a French man and a German woman _ to be released. The rebels said they would reply Thursday, but movements by government troops near the planned meeting place apparently spooked the rebels and they never appeared, officials said.

Negotiator Robert Aventajado, an adviser to Estrada, ordered the military to pull further back Friday to prevent a reoccurrence, and the envoys made brief contact late in the day.

Abu Escobar, a rebel leader, said Friday that the group had decided not to release the two hostages _ Renate Wallert, a German woman with hypertension, and Stephane Loisy, a French man with a urinary tract infection.

Officials would not read the hostages’ letters to reporters, saying they were personal. They described one from Wallert’s son, Marc, as thanking everyone for exerting efforts on the hostages’ behalf.

The rebels have yet to present a list of formal demands, and will do so only to the negotiators they have specified, Escobar said.

Informally, however, they have said they want independence for the region, the establishment of Islamic law, a return to barter trade, and a ban on foreign fishing boats.

The hostages _ three Germans, two French citizens, two South Africans, two Finns, a Lebanese, nine Malaysians and two Filipinos _ were kidnapped April 23 from Malaysia’s Sipadan Island and taken to Jolo, an island at the tip of the southern Philippines about an hour away.

Abu Sayyaf, the smaller and more extreme of two Muslim rebel groups in the southern Philippines, is also holding a separate group of Filipino hostages in nearby Basilan province. They seized those hostages, many of whom are children, on March 20 from two schools.

The military overran the rebels’ stronghold in Basilan last month and later rescued 15 hostages. Four others were killed and eight are believed to still be in rebel hands.

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