Two French journalists escape from Philippine rebels

MANILA, Philippines - The Philippine government on Wednesday portrayed the escape of two French journalists as vindication of its decision to use force against Muslim rebels holding hostages in the jungles.

The attack by thousands of elite troops on the Abu Sayyaf rebels had been strongly criticized by French President Jacques Chirac, who said it could endanger the 19 hostages.

The two television journalists, who had been taken captive July 9, headed home Wednesday. They credited their nighttime escape to the army assault on the guerrillas.

Philippine President Joseph Estrada beamed as he presented the journalists at a news conference in Manila, an arm around each, as a vindication of his decision to use force.

''As you can see for yourself, these two gentlemen are in good shape,'' Estrada said.

The journalists - Jean-Jacques Le Garrec and Roland Madura of France-2 television - were the first hostages recovered from Jolo, a remote southern island, since Estrada ordered the military assault Saturday.

The two men were seized while visiting a rebel camp to interview other hostages and escaped Tuesday evening amid confusion as the guerrillas fled the attack.

''We took the opportunity of the military pressure,'' Le Garrec said. He said the two bolted as the rebels were crossing a road. After hiding overnight in the jungle, they flagged down a military truck at dawn and were taken to an army camp.

Philippine officials had said initially that the military rescued the two hostages after a clash with the rebels.

''It's been 2 long months for us, but we feel very good,'' Le Garrec said. ''Of course we are very happy today and we are in a good shape, as you may judge, for people who have not been sleeping for some nights.''

The separatist Abu Sayyaf have kidnapped scores of people since March. Most have been released, with Libya and Malaysia reportedly paying more than $15 million for 19 foreigners. Estrada's decision to attack the rebels last weekend has been widely supported by Filipinos.

Estrada said Wednesday he would order a halt to the assault if the other hostages are freed.

Estrada also said an American hostage, Jeffrey Schilling, had been spotted and that troops hoped to rescue him.

The rebels also are holding three Malaysians, a Filipino kidnapped from a Malaysian diving resort in April, and 12 Filipino Christian evangelists.

Schilling, of Oakland, Calif., converted to Islam in 1994 and visited an Abu Sayyaf camp with his wife on Aug. 28 and was reportedly abducted because of an argument over religion with the rebels. His wife was not seized.

Seven rebels have been killed and 20 captured in the five days of fighting, while six government troops were wounded, military officials said.


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