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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 on the base on the southern island of Basilan.

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.

The rebels claimed they had escaped into the forest with all their captives. ``They are all here with us,″ spokesman Abu Ahmad told radio station DXRZ.

Ahmad also reported only four rebel deaths.

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.

The hostages were among about 50 people seized from two schools March 20. The rebels later released some of the hostages and said they beheaded two last week as a ``birthday present″ for President Joseph Estrada.

The Abu Sayyaf rebels have demanded the release of three terrorists from U.S. jails, including Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

Meanwhile, a Muslim official said 21 other hostages, including 10 foreign tourists, snatched by extremists Sunday from the Malaysian resort island of Sipadan are all healthy.

The hostages were 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 because the group is loosely connected.

Jamasali Abdurahman, a Muslim religious leader acting as a go-between, 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 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, Basilan spokesman Ahmad 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