Release of Philippine hostages delayed

JOLO, Philippines - Negotiators came tantalizingly close to freeing 24 hostages from a remote jungle camp Saturday but failed when the Muslim rebel abductors accused the Philippine military of preparing to attack once the four-month kidnapping ordeal ends.

Libyan mediators who brokered a deal for the hostage release blamed the Philippine military for the breakdown and threatened to withdraw their envoys if there are not ''tangible, positive developments'' in the coming 48 hours.

The breakdown deeply frustrated negotiators and diplomats from the hostages' home countries, who had flown to the violent southern Philippines with high hopes of a release after three Malaysians and a Filipino were freed Friday.

Several Finnish envoys wept when they heard the negotiating team had left the Abu Sayyaf rebel camp on Jolo island empty-handed after the kidnappers offered to release only two hostages. Some of the hostages have been held for nearly four months.

''We regret to announce that our mission has been unsuccessful,'' said a grim Robert Aventajado, the chief Philippine negotiator. ''We have to reassess the situation.''

The Abu Sayyaf guerrillas refused a demand by Philippine President Joseph Estrada that all hostages be freed in one group. Instead, they insisted that the captives be released in two stages to reduce the risk of an army assault, said former Libyan Ambassador Rajab Azzarouq, a member of the negotiating panel.

Presumably, even under the two-stage plan, some hostages would have been kept back to protect the rebels from attack.

''Further negotiations should take place until we are assured that the Philippine government will stop any military attacks,'' said a rebel statement read to reporters by Aventajado.

In Tripoli, the Libyan capital, the group which has handled negotiations with rebels said the release was delayed by ''movements of the Philippine army ... and the demand by some Philippine Congress members for the government to carry out military operations.''

''The ball is in the Philippines' court,'' said the Gadhafi International Association for Charitable Organizations, a group run by the son of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, Seif el-Islam.

In Manila, a growing number of lawmakers demanded decisive military action against the Abu Sayyaf, which has demanded $1 million ransom for each Western hostage.

Soldiers on Jolo were placed on high alert for Saturday's expected release, but Aventajado denied that government troops were poised to attack.

''I know for fact that the military is keeping their distance,'' he said. ''They are not doing anything because they're giving this negotiating team as much leeway and as much chance to settle this problem peacefully.''

A tired and disappointed Azzarouq said he would return to Jolo when the rebels are ready to talk, but gave no time frame.

The Abu Sayyaf group has been holding the three Malaysians, six French, two Germans, two Finns, two South Africans and 13 Filipinos in primitive mountain huts.

Thirteen of these remaining hostages were among a larger group abducted April 23 from a Malaysian diving resort. The rebels later seized three French journalists, and a dozen Filipino Christian evangelists who visited their hide-out to pray for the captives.

The three Malaysians and one Filipino released Friday were already on their way to freedom and would be picked up by a Malaysian plane Sunday, negotiators said. On Friday, negotiators said they had agreed on a guerrilla demand for an additional $1 million ransom payment, but did not provide details.

An estimated $5.5 million was paid last month to the Abu Sayyaf group for the release of six other Malaysians and a German, according to military officials. A Filipino woman was released Wednesday.

The Western hostages were to have flown aboard a Libyan-chartered plane to Tripoli to meet with Gadhafi before returning home.

Libya, once accused of arming and training Islamic groups in the mainly Roman Catholic Philippines, has played a high-profile role in the negotiations and is believed to be paying millions of dollars for the hostages' freedom. Libyan officials have insisted the money will fund development projects in the impoverished region instead of going directly to the rebels. Its effort was aimed in part at improving its image internationally and burying past links to terrorism.

The heavily armed Abu Sayyaf rebels claim they want an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines, but others say they are merely bandits, using Islamic ideals as cover for other aims.


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