Philippine Leader Comforts Hostages
ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AP) _ President Joseph Estrada pinned medals on wounded soldiers and comforted rescued hostages Sunday in a visit to the southern Philippines to encourage the military’s campaign against Muslim rebels.
Estrada also met briefly with Nur Misuari, the government-appointed negotiator attempting to free 21 hostages held by Abu Sayyaf Muslim rebels on nearby Jolo island.
Security was extremely tight after a week of violence that was the worst in years in the southern Mindanao region. Dozens of people have been killed in bomb explosions in several cities and in clashes between government troops and rebels from two Muslim separatist groups.
Troops were only about 200 yards from the main stronghold of the larger group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, in Lanao del Sur province, marine Brig. Gen. Emmanuel Teodosio said Sunday. Soldiers burned houses along a stretch of highway recaptured from the MILF, believing they belonged to guerrillas or supporters, he said.
The fighting flared a week ago when soldiers attacked about 700 rebels holding the highway along the edge of the MILF camp. The attack prompted the MILF to withdrew from peace talks.
On Jolo Island, a battle in the village of Laos on Sunday left one soldier and one Abu Sayyaf rebel dead, a government security official said on condition of anonymity.
Negotiators re-established contacts with the rebels on Jolo Saturday after they were cut last week when hundreds of troops encircled the area where the 21 hostages were being held in a bamboo hut. Amid clashes, at least some rebels slipped through the cordon with the hostages and were believed to have fled into the hills, the military said.
The 21 hostages include three Germans, two French nationals, two South Africans, two Finns and one Lebanese in addition to 10 Malaysians and one Filipino. The rebels have threatened to behead two of the foreign hostages if the military does not withdraw.
The Abu Sayyaf is smaller but more radical than MILF. Both are fighting for an independent Islamic state in the impoverished Mindanao region, home of the country’s Muslim minority.
On Saturday, troops found two headless bodies buried in a shallow grave near a former Abu Sayyaf stronghold in neighboring Basilan province, where rebels had held 27 Filipino hostages, the military said.
The male bodies, with their hands tied, were the first evidence that the rebels actually beheaded two of their captives, as they had claimed last month. The military responded to the claim by attacking the group’s stronghold April 22.
The kidnappers fled with their remaining hostages last weekend, just before their camp was overrun. Pursuing soldiers rescued 15 hostages. Four others were killed by the rebels, who are believed to be still holding eight people.
Six of the rescued hostages were injured and were being treated at the Southern Command hospital in Zamboanga, which Estrada visited.
Elsewhere Sunday, the European Union decided to send its top diplomat to the Philippines to underscore Europe’s concern about the safety of the hostages.
A statement issued by EU foreign ministers meeting in the Azores Islands said Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign and security policy chief, will go to Manila not as a mediator but to ``convey personally to the Philippine government the EU’s message concerning the safety of the hostages.″ It was not immediately announced when Solana will leave.