Libya pulls off publicity coup as freed hostages celebrate

TRIPOLI, Libya - Four men held captive in the Philippines for 140 days gathered at a historic fortress on the Mediterranean to offer thanks to Libya for arranging their release, then finally headed home to be reunited with family and friends.

Libya reportedly paid the Abu Sayyaf rebels of the southern Philippines $10 million in exchange for the freedom of the four men and six other hostages released last month.

''We are now facing the sunrise after a long time of darkness,'' said Risto Vahanen, who spoke for the hostages freed Saturday during the hourlong ceremony at the Red Palace, bordering Tripoli's ancient walled quarter.

Former captives German Marc Wallert, Frenchman Stephane Loisy and Finn Seppo Franti attended, as did three senior officials from Finland, France and Germany who also expressed their gratitude to the Libyan government for its work to free the men.

Some speakers wore dark glasses against the glare of the Mediterranean sun, and their hair and clothes were stirred by sea breezes during the outdoor gathering.

The ceremony appeared to bring the Libyans the results they hoped for - maximum publicity for their role in the hostage saga to win international respectability for their country, long accused of sponsoring terrorism and meddling in the affairs of other nations.

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who did not attend the ceremony, said last week he hopes for improved relations with the United States. His decision last year to surrender for a trial in the West two Libyans accused in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 led to the suspension of U.N. sanctions and better ties with Europe.

Wallert, whose parents had been kidnapped as well but set free before him, arrived in Germany late Tuesday aboard a German military plane and bear-hugged his waiting mother and father.

''I suppose it's obvious to say that I am overjoyed,'' Marc Wallert, who appeared in excellent spirits, said on the tarmac at Hanover airport. ''I have never been so happy to come back.''

Finn hostages Vahanen and Franti arrived in Helsinki Tuesday to a warm welcome from family and government officials. Vahanen kissed the airport tarmac after he got off the plane from Tripoli.

''I thought that it would taste of aircraft fuel, but it tasted of nothing,'' Vahanen joked.

French hostage Loisy was embraced in turns by ecstatic family members on arrival at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport Tuesday.

In the most significant acknowledgment so far of Western gratitude for Libya's efforts, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer was flying to Tripoli to thank the government in person.

Asked after the ceremony whether Libya's prestige had been boosted by its role in freeing the hostages, Seif el-Islam Gadhafi, the Libyan leader's son, said, ''Of course.''

Libya denies paying ransom for the captives' freedom, saying it only offered funding for development projects in the impoverished, largely Muslim southern Philippines. Libya has longstanding ties with Muslim rebels in the mostly Roman Catholic nation, has helped build schools and mosques in the south and has been accused of training rebels from the region's larger Muslim rebel group.

The ceremony came one day after Vahanen said the Abu Sayyaf rebels raped some of the female captives. But speaking to reporters in Tripoli on Tuesday, he denied he had spoken of rape and said their mistreatment included inappropriate touching of the women.

''The questions were misleading and also what has been said has been misunderstood,'' he said. ''We were humiliated and mistreated, all of us, but we didn't report this before we were released because we were afraid of being abused more or harassed.''

The four Europeans freed Saturday were the last foreigners from a group of 21 hostages taken hostage in April from a Malaysian diving resort. The Abu Sayyaf rebels are still holding one Filipino captured at the same time, two French television journalists and 12 Filipino Christian evangelists.

A separate Abu Sayyaf faction is holding American Jeffrey Schilling, a 24-year-old Muslim convert from Oakland, Calif., who was abducted Aug. 28 after he voluntarily visited a rebel camp.

Libyan negotiator Rajab Azzarouq has described Schilling as a ''willing hostage'' and Seif el Islam, the Libyan leader's son, said Libya had no plans to negotiate his release.

Meanwhile, there were signs the Philippines government may be considering military action against the kidnappers. Marines and four navy ships, including two landing craft, and armored personnel carriers were on standby at a naval station in southern Zamboanga city. A senior officer said the ships were going to Jolo island.


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