Responding to U.S. pressure to avert a looming hostage crisis, loyalist and rebel forces battling for Manila's financial district declared a temporary cease-fire early today and began evacuating hundreds of American tourists, business people and their families after three days of siege.
The evacuation, which began just before daybreak after nightlong negotiations between the government and rebel leaders, apparently ended one phase of the Philippine crisis. However, the insurrection by right-wing military rebels remained a bloody stalemate.
"Everybody goes," said Max Motchmann, a West German expatriate who participated in negotiations to end the siege. "There are no strings attached."
As most of the more than 2,000 foreigners and Filipinos, all waving white flags and walking gingerly through the district's bullet-pocked streets, made their way out of about 20 apartment towers and luxury hotels this morning, radio stations broadcast constant warnings and assurances.
The besieged residents were told to remain calm and were directed to pickup points, where at least 60 Philippine Department of Transportation buses, each bearing a huge white poster declaring "Tourist Evacuation Bus," moved them to safety outside the Makati district.
Although dazed and disheveled, the residents appeared to be unhurt and relieved after their ordeal.
It was an eerie scene in the district: The tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition fired by both sides during the three-day siege had caused surprisingly little damage to the dozens of banks, office towers and hotels in the area.
The dead quiet of Makati during the evacuation contrasted sharply with the constant gunfire that had filled the air throughout the ordeal.
Although details of the negotiations that led to the foreigners' release remained sketchy today, a U.S. official confirmed that "tremendous pressure" was brought to bear on beleaguered Philippine President Corazon Aquino to avert a hostage crisis reminiscent of the 1979-81 U.S. Embassy siege in Iran.
In Washington, a State Department official said that "we're urging Aquino not to take drastic action, such as strafing attacks or using artillery fire, that would hurt civilians.
"We want her to negotiate with the rebels so they'll lay down their arms," said the official, who spoke on condition he would not be named. "We do not want to see this ended by military action."
The advice to the beleaguered Philippine president was in sharp contrast with the Administration's usual policy against making deals with terrorists or kidnapers. However, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher sought to draw a sharp distinction between the sort of terrorism covered by the policy and the coup in the Philippines.
He said that the Administration did not consider the 200 Americans and 2,000 or so other foreigners to be hostages "in the normal sense of the word, as being held captive by specific individuals.
"They are, however, unable to move because of the rebel presence in the area," he said.
Late Tuesday, leaders of the rebel forces holding the district had threatened to separate the trapped foreigners, vowing to release "all foreign hostages except the Americans."
Self-styled coup leader Brig. Gen. Edgardo Abenina, in a statement that declared the Philippines to be "in a state of war," said in an interview that his group was advising "the U.S. to prepare a plan for the evacuation of its nationals.
"We are not going to intentionally kill Americans, but we must keep them here as an assurance that the U.S. will not come back and bomb us again," he said, referring to U.S. Air Force sorties in support of Aquino's forces last Friday.
U.S. and Philippine officials insist that the U.S. planes, F-4 Phantom jet fighters, dropped no bombs but sought only to force the rebels to keep their planes on the ground.
The United States has also provided communications and logistical support, and has announced plans to provide additional military and medical supplies.
U.S. Embassy officials estimate that there are 140,000 people in the Philippines holding U.S. passports, including 40,000 military personnel and dependents at six military facilities, including Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base.
Throughout Tuesday, U.S. officials scrambled to "avoid a hostage situation," as one put it, and appeared to blame the Aquino government for the increasingly tense situation.
"What we want is the armed forces of the Philippines to just stop shooting," the official said, referring to the fighting in Makati. He said that two aircraft carriers, the Enterprise and the Midway, were on call in case the situation should get "very, very nasty."
The official, speaking before the freeing of the foreigners, said it was not clear whether either the loyalist forces or the rebels were committed to releasing the hotel guests and besieged condominium residents who had been holed up since Saturday in basements, stairwells and behind mattress-covered windows.
"We're looking for leadership on the part of the government," the official said, "and if you look at the television today, you'd think there was no problem anywhere."
He characterized the rebel leaders as highly professional, noting that one of the officers who appeared before the press Tuesday is a graduate of West Point.
There were increasing signs, meanwhile, of flagging morale among the loyalist forces, who have expended tens of thousands of rounds of small arms and artillery ammunition in their unsuccessful effort to subdue the rebels.
Newly reinforced government troops fired on journalists being taken under rebel guard to the Inter-Continental Hotel, where rebels had stockpiled crates of weapons and ammunition. Rodolfo Aguinaldo, the governor of Cagayan Province, a former commando who supports the rebels, said the supplies were stored in Makati before the coup was undertaken.
The Aquino government is clearly struggling to control the deteriorating situation.
"The rebels have resorted to urban terrorist tactics against our people," the president said in a statement issued at Malacanang Palace. "We are handling this very sensitive situation with utmost concern about safety of civilians."
Aquino, who did not appear in public Tuesday, said she has "sufficient power" to resolve the crisis, and does not plan a declaration of martial law.
But military analysts said her forces appeared to be increasingly reluctant to assault the rebels in Makati.
"I don't think she has control of the military," a former official at the U.S. Embassy said. "This military doesn't seem willing to fight for her on the ground. And I think the strategy all around is just to wait."
Gov. Aguinaldo, who as a commando colonel was involved in the February, 1986, uprising that ousted President Ferdinand E. Marcos, told The Times in a telephone interview that the waiting game favors the rebels.
"Now, the propaganda war will set in," he said, "and the rebels have time on their side. They've got truckloads of ammunition. They've got plenty of food. And all they want is for Cory to resign."
Government troops set up roadblocks on highways north of Manila to prevent possible rebel reinforcements from entering the capital. Aguinaldo said he had prepared to lead "thousands" of troops 200 miles to Manila, along with tanks, howitzers and truckloads of ammunition, but was stopped by a "5-kilometer barricade" set up by loyalist troops.
During the press tour of the rebel-held district, it was clear that the rebels are well-provisioned. At the Inter-Continental, hotel staff displayed enough food for a month or more.
"We have been receiving tremendous supplies," Lt. Col. Rafael Galvez said.
He said he is in charge of field operations in Makati and that senior officers are directing him. Galvez boasted that his men will hold out "for as long as necessary--until Cory steps down."
Asked what will happen if the loyalists launch an all-out military assault that would destroy the buildings, Galvez said, "Then we will have to face the consequences."
He and his men pledged repeatedly before today's release that no tourists would be hurt, and the tourists themselves seemed to be in good humor, some of them supportive of the rebel cause.
"They've been absolute gentlemen," a man trapped in the Urdaneta Apartment Tower said.
At one point Tuesday morning, he said, the rebels herded residents into the basement in anticipation of a government offensive, and "they seem very worried about our safety."
Galvez expressed anger over U.S. military aid to Aquino but made no mention of any plan to separate the Americans.
"America has always been a partner of Philippine progress," he said. "I don't see any reason why we can't work with them."
At least 74 people, including a 6-year-old girl, have been killed since the fighting began Friday.
Thousands had fled the fighting that swirled around Makati. Up to 1,500 Americans, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders were taken to the Philippine Plaza Hotel, about five miles west of the fighting. The U.S. Embassy has set up an emergency desk in the hotel ballroom.
"It's an ad-hoc operation for an ad-hoc situation," a harried embassy employee said.
One Makati resident, Candy Lehmann, 33, escaped her besieged apartment during the night before today's freeing of foreigners, slipping out a back door. She hid behind trees and ran a half-mile down deserted back streets to a government checkpoint, where her brother-in-law waited with a car. She said she decided to take the risk after her telephone went dead Tuesday afternoon. Her power had failed Monday.
"I didn't have a phone," she said, still shaking with fear after seeking refuge in The Times' office. "I didn't have electricity. I didn't have radio or TV. I didn't have food. And there was fighting all around."
Lehmann said she hid behind a mattress for four days after bullets shattered the window of her fourth-floor studio apartment in the Blanco Central building. She rationed her only food: one can of lychees and another of tuna fish.
Government troops who held her building seemed poorly organized, she said. One soldier ran out of ammunition and had no walkie-talkie. "He asked us for a radio, but we didn't have any electricity," she said. "So, he got some civilian clothes from the guard and left."
Lehmann said 35 people were originally trapped in her building, but about half have managed to escape since Saturday.
Several hundred rebels continued to occupy Mactan Air Base in Cebu, 350 miles south of Manila, despite a midnight Monday ultimatum to surrender. A threatened government attack did not materialize.
Times staff writers Robin Wright and Norman Kempster, in Washington, contributed to this story.