Libyan welcome for freed hostages

TRIPOLI, Libya - A plane carrying six former hostages traveled to Libya on Monday for an extraordinary welcome by Moammar Gadhafi. The Libyan strongman earned unprecedented international thanks for persuading Filipino rebels to release the group.

A plane carrying the former hostages left Cebu, Philippines on Monday headed for Tripoli. It landed in the United Arab Emirates for refueling in the early afternoon and was to resume its trip later in the day.

Libya, often accused of backing guerrillas, plotting terror attacks and meddling in affairs far from home, says it acted out of humanitarian concern. But the move also won Gadhafi international publicity at a time when his country is working to end years of isolation.

France and Germany, whose citizens were among those freed, found themselves officially thanking Libya. Negotiators say Gadhafi paid $1 million per captive, but Libya insisted it gained the releases by promising development projects in the Philippines.

One of the six hostages, South African Callie Strydom, was freed earlier Monday. The five others, including Strydom's wife, Monique, were released Sunday.

The Strydoms embraced tightly and kissed as they were reunited on the tarmac of Cebu's airport, where the luxurious Libyan Ilyushin plane - formerly used by Russian President Boris Yeltsin - waited.

''I'm very happy,'' Monique said after seeing her husband. ''But I'm very sad for all the other men who weren't released.''

Most of the hostages had been held four months after being captured at the Malaysian diving resort of Sipadan. Six foreigners and 12 Filipinos remain in the hands of the Muslim rebels, known as Abu Sayyaf.

Tharwat Moarbes, whose Lebanese-French daughter Marie was among those released, thanked Gadhafi for his help and expressed hope the other hostages would also be freed soon.

''I am very happy that Gadhafi has brought back my daughter. God willing he will bring the remaining'' hostages, she told reporters after arriving in Libya from Lebanon.

On Sunday, the Gadhafi International Association for Charitable Organizations, a group run by Gadhafi's son Seif el-Islam that led negotiations, promised to continue efforts for the release of the remaining hostages ''as soon as possible.''

Libya has long-standing ties with Muslim rebels in the mostly Catholic Philippines and has helped negotiate in previous kidnappings. It has helped build schools and mosques in the impoverished south, but has also been accused of training rebels from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the larger Muslim rebel group.

The freed hostages' trip to Libya is officially voluntary. But it is widely believed that their governments agreed to the visit in exchange for Libya's help in negotiations.

A huge festival is believed to be under preparation for them here, and officials from Germany, France and South Africa were among the expected guests. But Libyan officials were refusing comment Monday on their welcome plans.

Last year, Gadhafi handed over two Libyan government officials who were suspects in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland that killed 270 people. The United Nations responded by suspending international economic sanctions. Since then, Gadhafi has been welcoming foreign politicians and businesspeople to Libya and appearing at regional summits at which he portrays himself as a world leader.

Those released by the rebels were Frenchwomen Sonia Wendling, Maryse Burgot, Moarbes and the Strydoms.

Burgot was among three French journalists who came to the rebel camp to interview the hostages last month. The two other French journalists remained held along with 12 Filipino Christian evangelists who had come to pray for the captives.

The five other released captives were among 21 people kidnapped from the Malaysian resort April 23.


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