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Muslim Rebels Free Six Hostages

July 21, 2000

MANILA, Philippines (AP) _ Muslim extremists holding several dozen hostages in a remote Philippine jungle freed two Filipino teachers and four Malaysians on Friday for hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransom.

The four jubilant Malaysians were flown to Manila, where they were turned over to their country’s ambassador.

``I’m so happy, and what I want now is to meet my family as soon as possible,″ said Francis Masangkin, one of the four hostages.

The four _ fatigued, unwashed and carrying their possessions in rice sacks _ were presented to Malaysian Ambassador Mohamed Arshad Hussain by chief government negotiator Robert Aventajado.

They were part of a group of 21 mostly foreign hostages kidnapped April 23 from Malaysia’s Sipadan diving resort by Abu Sayyaf rebels. Six Malaysians and one German woman from the group have now been released.

``While there is reason to rejoice today, it is not yet the time to celebrate,″ Hussain said. ``Celebration will have to wait until all the Sipadan hostages, Malaysian and non-Malaysian alike, similarly regain their freedom.″

Later Friday, the rebels freed two female teachers abducted March 20 from a school on nearby Basilan Island. Negotiators said an undisclosed ransom was paid.

``We are happy because our children will now see us,″ teacher Teresita Academia said. ``We were not harmed. They treated us well.″

The other teacher, Erlinda Manuel, who was two months’ pregnant when seized, suffered a miscarriage June 25.

Manuel said they will return to teaching but want to be reassigned to another school.

The rebels had promised to free three other Malaysians as well, but refused to turn them over Thursday to envoys sent by negotiators to an Abu Sayyaf hide-out on Jolo Island at the southern tip of the Philippines.

The breaking of the agreement apparently resulted from disagreements among the rebel leaders over how to divide up the ransom, negotiators said. The remaining three Malaysians are reportedly now being held by a different Abu Sayyaf commander.

The Abu Sayyaf consists of several hundred heavily armed rebels divided into several bands led by at least five separate commanders. The group has been accused of banditry, kidnappings and numerous attacks on Christians in the past.

The Abu Sayyaf has also kidnapped 13 Filipino Christian evangelists and three French TV journalists. A separate armed group on Jolo is believed to be holding a German reporter for Der Speigel magazine.

On Monday, the rebels released their first European captive, an ailing German woman.

The series of releases in the past week has raised hopes for an early resolution of the hostage crisis, but the reports of disputes among the Abu Sayyaf leaders have tempered that optimism.

Tensions also erupted Thursday within the government negotiating team, with Aventajado accusing Lee Peng Wee, a former presidential adviser with business interests in Malaysia, of violating instructions and endangering the talks. He also ordered a check of the immigration records of several Malaysians who are helping Wee negotiate.

The Philippine presidential palace welcomed the releases.

``We are hopeful in the next few days we may have a breakthrough,″ presidential Executive Secretary Ronaldo Zamora said.

Aventajado said he expects the remaining female Sipadan hostages will be released ahead of the men, but it is still unclear whether they will be freed together or one-by-one.

The seven Malaysians were originally scheduled to be freed Monday, but a last-minute demand by the rebels for a larger ransom delayed the release.

After further talks, the negotiators agreed to raise the ransom an unspecified amount from the $67,500 per person originally agreed upon, they said.

The rebels are demanding $1 million for the release of each European hostage, negotiators say. The Philippine government has an official no-ransom policy, but negotiators have confirmed that ransoms were paid for the two Malaysian hostages who were earlier released.

It was unclear who was putting up the money.

The Malaysian government has also promised to provide development assistance through the Philippine government for Jolo.

The remaining hostages consist of six French, three Germans, two Finns, two South Africans, 15 Filipinos and three Malaysians.

Negotiators say Ghalib Andang, the Abu Sayyaf commander holding most of the hostages, is no longer demanding an independent nation be created in the southern Philippines for the country’s Muslim minority. But other rebel commanders reportedly still want an Islamic state.

Update hourly