Philippine rebels take foreign journalists hostage, release them for $25,000

JOLO, Philippines - Muslim rebels holding 21 hostages on a southern Philippine island grabbed a group of foreign journalists and then released them 10 hours later in exchange for $25,000 in ransom, police and one of the journalists said Saturday.

The 10 journalists, mostly Germans working for Germany's television networks ZDF, Sat. 1, RTL, and Der Spiegel magazine, were seized in a nearby village Friday while planning a visit to the rebel camp to interview the hostages.

Der Spiegel reporter Andreas Lorenz said his group included six other Germans, one Australian, one Dane and one French.

Lorenz said they had planned to follow a medical team sent by the government Friday to visit the hostages, but the rebels stopped them.

He said the rebels first asked them to ''pay'' 50 sacks of rice to be allowed inside the camp, but the group refused on grounds that journalists do not pay for interviews.

The journalists were led inside a jungle, where rebels took their personal belongings, including shoes, watches, tape recorders, bags and a satellite telephone.

According to police, the rebels initially demanded $1 million for their freedom, but later lowered the amount. They allowed four journalists to go back to their hotel in the town of Jolo, and threatened to behead one of those remaining if they did not return with the money. Jolo is 590 miles south of Manila, the capital of the Philippines.

''They told us if the money wouldn't be there by (10 o'clock) in the evening, they would start killing some ... of us,'' Lorenz told Associated Press Television News.

Lorenz said his group was held for about 10 hours and was moved around the jungle while they waited for the money.

The journalists were seeking interviews with hostages seized on April 23 from a Malaysian resort island and brought to the Philippines. The hostages consist of three Germans, two French, two Finns, two South Africans, a Lebanese, nine Malaysians and two Filipinos.

The hostages have been moved to a series of jungle hide-outs by their captors, a small Muslim rebel group called Abu Sayyaf. They are currently living under two large tarps - one for the European hostages and one for the Asians - which don't adequately protect them from heavy rains.

A government negotiating panel met rebel leaders for a first round of talks to free the hostages last week. Chief negotiator Robert Aventajado said Saturday he expects the second round of talks to be held next week.

A separate Abu Sayyaf band is holding six Filipino children and two teachers hostage on the nearby island of Basilan.

The Abu Sayyaf is the smaller of two rebel groups fighting for an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines.

Fighting between government forces and a larger rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, has intensified in recent months. Those rebels are considering an offer of expanded autonomy, instead of independence, presented in three days of peace talks that ended Thursday.

In Jolo, a grenade exploded Saturday outside a Catholic church. No one was injured and there was little damage, police said, but the blast renewed tension in Jolo, where seven people were killed last month when three grenades exploded inside a market.

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