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Libya Give Hostage Takers Deadline

August 20, 2000

JOLO, Philippines (AP) _ Three Malaysian resort workers held for four months by Philippine Muslim rebels headed home Sunday, as Libya threatened to withdraw from negotiations to free the remaining hostages unless there are tangible results within 48 hours.

``I’m very happy,″ said freed hostage Ken Fong Yin Ken, as he hugged his father, the pilot of the Malaysian plane that flew to remote Jolo island to take them home.

The three Malaysians were released Friday, but did not reach Jolo until Sunday. They temporarily stayed with another rebel faction for safety after their van ran out of gasoline. The Abu Sayyaf rebels who ransomed them still hold 24 other hostages, including 12 Westerners, in their remote jungle camp.

The rebels, who seek an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines, reneged on a plan to release all the hostages Saturday.

Libyan mediators who brokered the deal for the hostage release blamed the Philippine military for the breakdown and threatened to withdraw their envoys if there are not ``tangible, positive developments″ in the coming 48 hours.

``They (the Libyans) entered voluntarily and they can withdraw at any time,″ chief Philippine government negotiator Robert Aventajado said Sunday. ``Their man on the ground, Dr. Rajab Azzarouq, knows exactly the situation in relation to the negotiations.″

Libya, once accused of arming and training Islamic groups in the mainly Roman Catholic Philippines, has played a high-profile role in the negotiations and is believed to be paying millions of dollars for the hostages’ freedom. Libyan officials say the money will fund development projects in the impoverished region instead of going directly to the rebels. None of the hostages is Libyan.

After making the deal to free all the hostages, the rebels said they would free only two, because they feared a military attack. Negotiators refused to accept the offer because President Joseph Estrada had ordered that all the captives should be released at once. They also denied there were any military movements.

``The military is not doing anything that should alarm the Abu Sayyaf,″ Aventajado said.

Azzarouq, who traveled to the rebel’s camp on Saturday, said the release of all the captives remains difficult because of internal strife within the Abu Sayyaf. The group’s various factions are believed to be quarreling over the ransom money.

``All the ingredients are there for a solution. It’s up to them. We want them to get their act together,″ he said.

He rebuffed a rebel demand that the release of the hostages be renegotiated.

``We cannot renegotiate the whole thing again. We will go back to square one ... if we do that,″ he said.

The three hostages released Friday were workers at Malaysia’s Sipadan diving resort, where the original group of 21 was taken captive April 23. Of that group, nine remain. The rebels later seized three French journalists and a dozen Filipino Christian evangelists who came to pray at their camp.

The three Malaysians were flown from Jolo to nearby Zamboanga City, where they were presented to their ambassador. From there they flew to Kota Kinabalu in eastern Malaysia.

Ken Fong, who had worked as a diving instructor, said he would return to his job at the resort. Also freed were Basilius Jim, a forest ranger, and Kua Yu Loong, a resort cook.

The Abu Sayyaf still hold six French, two Germans, two Finns, two South Africans and 12 Filipinos.

An estimated $5.5 million was paid last month to the Abu Sayyaf for the release of six other Malaysians and a German, according to military officials. A Filipino woman was released on Wednesday and a Filipino man was reportedly freed Friday.

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