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Philippine Hostages Appeal To Govt.

May 7, 2000

JOLO, Philippines (AP) _ Saying they are weak and depressed, 21 hostages being held in a cage on a southern Philippine island appealed to the government to halt military operations so negotiations for their release can begin.

Two visiting Associated Press journalists saw the hostages, who include 10 foreign tourists, late Saturday in the foothills of a small mountain near Talipao on Jolo island. Their Abu Sayyaf Muslim rebel captors had put them in an outdoor cage made of tree branches.

The pigpen-like cage was divided into two, with the foreign tourists in one half and Asians in the other. One hostage, Renate Wallert of Germany, was allowed by the rebels to lie in a plastic hammock because of back problems and other health concerns.

More than 100 rebels armed with M-16 rifles, grenades and long knives roamed the area. Some rebels were setting up a row of tents made of rice sacks while others cooked rice over firewood.

The hostages include three Germans, two French nationals, two South Africans, two Finns and one Lebanese in addition to nine Malaysians and two Filipinos. They were kidnapped from a Malaysian diving resort two weeks ago and brought by boat to Jolo, about one hour away.

Many of the hostages appeared exhausted. Some wore the same clothes they had been wearing when they were visited by journalists a week earlier. Others were wearing clothes provided by the rebels.

They described themselves as being generally healthy but often depressed. They said they needed clothes, clean water and personal care items.

The hostages said they and their Muslim rebel captors evaded a military clash at their previous hide-out several days ago by crawling through the forest on their hands and knees. Their hands and legs were still badly bruised.

The rebel captors have said they will not negotiate until Philippine troops who have pursued them stop all operations in the area. The hostages urged the government to comply with that demand.

The visiting journalists accompanied a doctor, Huda Lim, who traveled to the hide-out to treat the hostages and bring them medicine. They were escorted over muddy jungle trails to the camp by rebel guides.

While they were visiting the camp, four rebel leaders drafted and signed a letter to President Joseph Estrada rejecting the government’s negotiator, Nur Misuari, a former rebel leader who made peace with the government in 1996. The rebels demanded instead to negotiate with presidential Executive Secretary Ronaldo Zamora and with the ambassadors of all the hostages’ countries, as well as representatives of Libya, the United Nations and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

The Philippine government has repeatedly said it views the kidnapping as a domestic issue and does not want to internationalize it.

Soldiers and the rebels on Jolo have clashed repeatedly since Tuesday, when the military encircled the rebels with a tight cordon. On Sunday, a battle in the village of Laos left one soldier and one rebel dead, a government security official said.

The hostage crisis is part of a wave of violence that has hit the southern Philippines in recent weeks.

The Abu Sayyaf, the smaller of two rebel groups fighting for a separate Islamic state in the southern Philippines, earlier kidnapped another group of hostages from schools in nearby Basilan province. Fifteen of those hostages were rescued and four others killed last week. The rebels are believed to still be holding eight people there.

On Sunday, soldiers clashed with a group of rebels near where the military rescued the 15 hostages Wednesday, Col. Ernesto de Guzman said. He said there were no immediate reports of casualties. But GMA television, which had a crew near the site of the fighting, reported that 12 soldiers, three guides and a local village leader were killed.

Bombings and a series of clashes between the military and the other rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, have also killed dozens of people in the past week.

On Sunday, President Estrada visited the region to encourage the military’s campaign against Muslim rebels. He pinned medals on wounded soldiers and comforted rescued hostages.

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 on Monday.

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