Report: All 21 hostages on Philippine island are alive

JOLO, Philippines - Two days after Muslim rebels holed up on this island claimed that two of their foreign hostages had died, negotiators reportedly have confirmed that all 21 of the captives, including 10 foreign tourists, are alive.

The negotiators have resumed contacts with the Abu Sayyaf rebels, several villagers in touch with the negotiators said Friday. The rebels were able to break through a military cordon and were holding their hostages at a single location outside the area, said the villagers, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Jolo hostages are 10 Malaysians, three Germans, two French nationals, two South Africans, two Finns, one Lebanese and one Filipino. They were kidnapped April 23 from Sipadan Island, a Malaysian diving resort, and taken by boat to Jolo, a southern Philippine island about one hour away.

Contacts between the kidnappers and negotiators were cut earlier this week after hundreds of government troops encircled the area where the hostages were being held in a simple bamboo hut. A series of clashes erupted on Tuesday and Wednesday as the rebels tried to escape.

On Wednesday, the rebels claimed two of the foreign hostages had died - one from a stray bullet and one of a heart attack. Government officials have said those claims were unconfirmed, and troops who seized the bamboo hut said they found no bodies or bloodstains.

The government-appointed negotiators, led by former Muslim rebel leader Nur Misuari, sent several representatives to meet quietly with the kidnappers at their new hide-out on Thursday, the people in touch with the negotiators said.

All 21 hostages were in the same house with the rebels, they said, contradicting earlier reports that the hostages had been divided into five groups. They said that on the basis of Thursday's contact, a team of negotiators arrived Friday and planned to go into the mountains to meet the kidnappers.

Earlier in the week, the rebels had threatened to behead two foreign hostages if the military did not back off. A rebel leader, Abu Escobar, said in a radio interview broadcast Friday that the group is discussing whether to go through with the threat.

''We will see. If the situation remains, the surprise may happen,'' he told DXRZ radio.

The government reiterated Friday that the troops would stay.

The Abu Sayyaf is the smaller of two separatist Muslim rebel groups seeking an independent Islamic nation in the impoverished southern Philippines.

The militants on Jolo are one of two groups of Abu Sayyaf rebels holding hostages in the region. On the nearby island of Basilan, other rebels had 27 Filipino hostages until Wednesday, when 15 of the captives were rescued by government troops and four others were killed - reportedly shot in the back of their heads by their captors.

Many of the Basilan hostages were children, though the four who died were adults. Survivors said some of the hostages were regularly beaten during their seven weeks in captivity, and a priest who was among the dead had been tortured.

The Basilan rebels are believed to be holding the remaining hostages. Troops were searching for them Friday.


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