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Philippines Troops Take Stronghold

April 29, 2000

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AP) _ Troops fought today to take control of the final reaches of a mountainous Muslim rebel stronghold, after seizing most of the camp but failing to find 27 hostages, mostly children, held there for nearly six weeks.

Elite troops pursued fleeing Abu Sayyaf rebels along an upper ridge of the heavily forested, 2,950-foot mountain, spokesman Col. Hilario Atendido said. Others shelled rebel positions, while planes dropped bombs.

Soldiers found shallow graves believed to contain the bodies of about 20 rebels, and suspected other bodies were hidden in the camp’s network of foxholes, bunkers and tunnels.

``When you get near caves and tunnels the smell of dead bodies is overpowering,″ Deputy Chief of Staff Jose Calimlim said. ``We hope this is not of the hostages.″

The hostages were among about 50 people seized March 20 from two schools by the rebels, who are demanding the release of three terrorists from U.S. jails, including the mastermind of the World Trade Center bombing. The rebels released some hostages and said they beheaded two last week as a ``birthday present″ to President Joseph Estrada.

Officials said 80 percent of the rebel base, located on the southern island of Basilan, was under the control of government troops, and that the hostages were likely hidden in bunkers.

One soldier was killed and seven wounded in Friday’s fighting, bringing the government toll to six dead and 32 wounded since about 1,500 government troops launched the rescue operation a week ago, officials said.

Some 21 hostages were seized Sunday from a Malaysian resort island of Sipadan and believed taken to near the Philippine town of Talipao on Sulu island, about 50 miles southwest of Basilan. Officials said at least some of the kidnappers are members of the Abu Sayyaf, but no direct link has been made since the group is loosely connected.

Jamasali Abdurahman, a Muslim religious leader acting as a go-between, said today that the hostages, including 10 foreign tourists, were doing well.

He said the kidnappers had conveyed three verbal demands and would present a full written list that could include a ransom demand. The demands so far included fulfilling a 1976 agreement that provided for a 13-province autonomous region, he said.

Police said the hostages had been divided into four groups.

Prospects for direct negotiations were unclear after Abu Sayyaf commander Galib Andang told a local radio station that they would negotiate only with ambassadors from the hostages’ countries.

``They cannot demand anymore,″ responded Alexander Aguirre, Philippine national security adviser. ``They are under attack.″

Andang allowed station DXRZ to interview one of the hostages, Carel Strydom from South Africa. In comments dictated by someone whispering next to him, Strydom asked the United Nations to tell the Philippine government to stop its military actions against the rebels.

In a separate radio interview, Abu Ahmad, spokesman of the Basilan rebels, warned that the tourists held in Sulu would be beheaded if their ambassadors refuse to negotiate. But Andang did not make a similar threat.

Journalists who tried to travel through Talipao today were forced to turn back by armed men, who surrounded their cars and fired in the air. Police say the kidnappers promised locals a share of any ransom money if they act as lookouts.

Estrada has ruled out any ransom payment. A police official said the kidnappers are demanding $2.4 million.

In Malaysia, police rounded up 500 suspected illegal migrants today, most of them Filipino, Mabul Island adjacent to Sipadan. Police did not elaborate, but officials on Friday detained seven people from Mabul for questioning in the kidnapping.

Update hourly