Philippines Troops Take Stronghold
ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AP) _ Elite troops pursued fleeing Muslim rebels in heavy fighting today after taking control of their mountain stronghold but failing to find 27 hostages, mostly children, held for nearly six weeks.
Groups of Abu Sayyaf rebels manned blockades in an effort to halt the pursuing troops on the heavily forested, 2,950-foot mountain, military officials said.
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.
But soldiers found shallow graves believed to contain the bodies of about 20 rebels in the overrun camp on the southern Philippine island of Basilan. They suspected other bodies were hidden in the camp’s network of foxholes, bunkers and tunnels.
Three soldiers were killed and 20 wounded today, bringing the government toll to nine dead and 52 wounded since about 1,500 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 free-lance journalist who visited 21 other hostages abducted from a Malaysian resort of Sipadan last Sunday said they are weak, don’t have enough food, and are crowded into a single bamboo hut.
Arlyn de la Cruz said several have diarrhea because of impure drinking water in the mountainous area of Talipao on Sulu island, about 50 miles southwest of Basilan.
Officials said 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 verbal demands included fulfilling a 1976 agreement that provided for a 13-province autonomous region, he said.
Prospects for direct negotiations were unclear after Abu Sayyaf commander Galib Andang told DXRZ that they would negotiate only with ambassadors from the hostages’ countries.
Presidential security adviser Alexander Aguirre refused today to replace its negotiator, Nur Misuari.
Andang allowed the station 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. 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 and the release of relatives jailed in Malaysia for various crimes.
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.