Envoy Heads to Muslim Rebel Camp
JOLO, Philippines (AP) _ A Libyan envoy headed into the Philippine jungle today to talk with Muslim separatists holding 21 Western and Asian hostages and to press for the release of an ill German woman.
A doctor accompanying him had medicine, oxygen, food, clothing, and chocolate for the captives. She was also taking stretchers in case the rebels agreed to free two captives: a German woman who has suffered two strokes, according to her family, and a French man with a urinary infection.
``They are now ready to meet us,″ said Muslim cleric Ibrahim Ghazali, a member of the negotiating team, after talking with representatives just back from the camp.
Abdul Rajab Azzarouq, the former Libyan ambassador to the Philippines, is on the remote southern island of Jolo hoping to use his extensive personal contacts with Muslims in the region to help free the hostages.
``I hope we can bring down the German woman. She is our priority because she is sick,″ Ghazali said.
An envoy from the European Union, Javier Solana, was also upbeat, saying before he left Manila today: ``I do hope very much that we will see her soon.″
Violence in the impoverished southern region of Mindanao, where Muslim guerrillas are fighting to carve an Islamic nation from the predominantly Christian Philippines, has increased in recent weeks, leaving scores dead and driving more than 100,000 people from their homes.
The hostages _ three Germans, two French, two South Africans, two Finns, a Lebanese, nine Malaysians and two Filipinos _ were snatched from a diving resort on the Malaysian island of Sipadan on April 23 and taken to Jolo, an hour’s boat ride away.
They are held by the Abu Sayyaf, the smaller and more extreme of two Muslim rebel groups active here. The Abu Sayyaf are also holding in nearby Basilan province a separate group of Filipino hostages seized from schools. After clashes, killings and rescues, approximately eight people, mostly children, are thought to remain in their hands.
Bombings and clashes between troops and the larger Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, have been on the rise since late last month, when soldiers attacked rebels holding a highway along the edge of their main camp.
In Manila, a bomb was found in a small bag at the National Museum and defused this morning, said the chief guard, Roberto de Ocampo. It was the same type, he said, as one that exploded in a central Manila park early Saturday, injuring a man sleeping nearby. Local police blamed that explosion on gang rivalry.
Another bomb was disarmed in the Mindanao city of Zamboanga, near the island where the 21 hostages are held, police Chief Karib Muammil said. The bomb was left near City Hall. No group immediately claimed responsibility.
The crisis over the Jolo kidnapping has gained international attention after video footage taken at the rebel camp was broadcast around the world, showing terrified, exhausted and ill hostages.
The Philippines had insisted that the crisis was a purely domestic problem and rejected foreign offers of assistance. Azzarouq, however, has the government’s blessing.
Solana, the EU’s top diplomat, came to Manila on Tuesday to remind the government that Europe does not want to see any attempts to rescue the hostages by force.
``We trust the way that the government is facing the problem,″ he said after meeting President Joseph Estrada on Tuesday. ``The president gave us a guarantee on the safety of the hostages.″
The government’s chief negotiator was not so upbeat.
``They have every right to be concerned,″ negotiator Nur Misuari said Tuesday of the European governments. ``After the fighting ... everything is in shambles.″
Misuari was also traveling to Jolo today from the nearby city of Zamboanga to consult with his envoys to the rebels.
Four Abu Sayyaf leaders holding the 21 Jolo hostages sent a letter to Estrada on Saturday rejecting Misuari as negotiator and demanding talks with the ambassadors from the hostages’ countries, presidential Executive Secretary Ronaldo Zamora, and representatives of the United Nations, Libya and other Islamic nations.
The rebels have not yet made any concrete demands for the release of the hostages.
The hostages have appealed to the military to halt operations in the area, and negotiators have asked the army to avoid skirmishes that could endanger those held. The rebels have clashed repeatedly with soldiers surrounding their camp.
When Associated Press journalists visited the Abu Sayyaf camp on Saturday, Renate Wallert, 57, appeared haggard and worn. Her husband and son have begged the rebels to free her.
But an Abu Sayyaf leader, Abu Escobar, told radio station DXRZ on Tuesday that they would not release her because ``yesterday there were gunshots and she was able to jump from her hammock and walk away.″
Negotiators said a jet and helicopter were standing by to whisk her to a hospital if she is freed.