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Visit to Rebel Camp in Philippines

May 8, 2000

NOTE _ Associated Press reporter Jim Gomez and APTN cameraman Manuel Tecson accompanied a doctor to the jungle hide-out of Abu Sayyaf Muslim rebels who are holding 21 people abducted two weeks ago from a Malaysian resort island. Here is Gomez’s account of the trip.

By JIM GOMEZ

Associated Press Writer

JOLO, Philippines (AP) _ After struggling more than an hour through heavy vegetation and thick mud, we reached the jungle hide-out where 21 hostages were being held in a makeshift cage and were greeted by young Muslim rebels, automatic weapons slung over their shoulders.

Most of the rebels were peasants in rubber sandals, many in their early 20s. One appeared awkward with an M203 grenade launcher dangling like an oversized toy gun against his thin frame.

``I hope you have a present for me,″ said Galib Andang, a rebel leader also known as Commander Robot, who held a massive rifle and wore bandoleers of ammunition and muddied, worn-out boots. A doctor who traveled with us to examine the hostages handed him a copy of the Koran, the Islamic holy book.

A brief visit to the camp of the Abu Sayyaf rebels near Talipao on southern Jolo island offered a glimpse into the violent Muslim separatist rebellion that has long troubled this lush mountain region.

A young rebel nudged my hand and pointed to my watch. He wanted it as a souvenir _ a request I dared not refuse. Others asked for tape recorders, cameras, money and shoes.

The hostages _ two French citizens, three Germans, two South Africans, two Finns, one Lebanese, nine Malaysians and two Filipinos kidnapped from a Malaysian diving resort two weeks ago _ sat on banana leaves spread on the ground in a cage-like clearing fenced off with tree branches.

They appeared exhausted and many had bruises on their arms and feet. They said they needed clothing, clean water, medicine for diarrhea, and blankets to ward off the cold at night.

One hostage, Renate Wallert of Germany, lay sleeping in a hammock, exhausted and ill from two weeks of captivity in the humid wilderness.

Her son Marc pleaded with us to take her with us when we left the camp, but the rebels refused.

In letters to their loved ones, the hostages described the struggle of captivity and urged an end to military action by Philippine forces trying to free them, saying they had been caught in the cross fire during the last attack.

``Please help us get out of here ALIVE and not DEAD,″ pleaded Filipinos Lucrecia Dablo and Abe Roland Ulla in a letter to President Joseph Estrada and the Philippine people, especially ``our loved ones.″

The hostages’ requests ranged from the practical _ canvas and plastic for protection from the rain, underwear and ``glasses (-3.25) _ very urgent″ _ to the humorous. South Africans Callie and Monique Strydom wanted a McDonald’s hamburger.

Some of the more than 100 rebels cooked a simple dinner of rice, while others milled around, watching and listening as we talked to the hostages.

The rebels said they took to the mountains because of centuries of discrimination against the Philippines’ Muslim minority.

``These people would not rebel if they were treated equally and given opportunities to overcome poverty,″ said Abu Escobar, a rebel spokesman.

Later, Escobar and other guerrillas led us down a muddy jungle trail in pitch darkness. We slipped and fell repeatedly because of the mud and debris that littered the way.

``We call this the loneliest, darkest road in the world,″ Escobar said.

_____

NOTE _ Jim Gomez has been a reporter in the AP’s Manila bureau for three years.

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