Fear and Champagne Mix for Foreigners at Embattled Hotels

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An American real estate executive was about to explain Tuesday how he had become one of the 400 or so "guests" of Philippine rebels at a swank Manila hotel when sniper fire crashed through a lobby window.

"Lie down! Lie down!" a rebel soldier shouted.

The advice was hardly necessary. Everyone at the besieged hotel, the Inter-Continental, seemed to know the drill. Almost immediately, they were flat on the carpet, hands covering their heads.

For three days, the real estate executive and hundreds of other foreigners had been holed up in the hotel in the heart of Makati, the financial district. They were described variously as guests, hostages and pawns. And it was a reflection of the mood before today's dramatic release of all foreigners trapped in the district.

But across town at the Philippine Plaza Hotel, on the shores of Manila Bay, the scene was peaceful even on Tuesday, and the contrast reflected the many faces of Manila in coup season. The present uprising is the sixth in the last four years.

Liam Lambert, the Plaza's manager, was offering a "half-price coup d'etat special" on all rooms. Poolside parlor games were arranged for evacuated youngsters, and although they were technically refugees, the 1,500 Westerners in the ballroom were as relieved as their counterparts at the Inter-Continental were anxious.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Embassy designated the Plaza as the official evacuation center for American citizens. Half a dozen other foreign missions also sent their ambassadors and nationals to the Plaza as the Battle of Makati threatened to expand into adjacent neighborhoods.

"We're five-star refugees," Charles Martin, an American businessman said. He had abandoned his home in one of the posh neighborhoods that surround Makati.

Like most of the others, Martin was warned by the embassy just after dawn Tuesday that his neighborhood was likely to be caught up in the fighting as President Corazon Aquino's loyalist forces sought to put down the fiercest challenge yet from her divided armed forces.

Martin hardly needed the warning.

"I went for a walk around the (neighborhood) early this morning and saw a group of soldiers," Martin told a reporter. "I asked them how far off the rebels were, and one of the soldiers said, 'Sir, we are the rebels.' "

Martin promptly collected his wife and three children and drove to what the embassy said was not technically an evacuation center but a "relocation" center.

There, in the lobby, he was greeted by a smiling Lambert, his half-off deal and "a guaranteed champagne cocktail when the coup officially ends."

"Enjoy the coup," Lambert, a Canadian by birth, said over and over as he greeted shaken and disheveled guests who arrived in a steady stream throughout the morning.

Although most of the new guests at the Plaza were clearly relieved to be out of the Makati fighting, some were in a kind of dilemma.

A Canadian woman, who asked not to be identified by name, said she had fled her home in Makati on Tuesday and was forced to go to the Plaza alone. Her husband had gone across town to pick up a client at the Peninsula Hotel, down the street from the Inter-Continental, and had been there since.

"No, I don't think he's a hostage," his wife said. "He's a pawn. He's being used in something larger, and I do very much appreciate the position of the soldiers who are holding the hotel.

"I don't like to call them rebels. These are the creme de la creme of the Philippine military, combat-hardened soldiers who seem to have legitimate grievances. They have been nothing but gentlemen to the hotel guests, totally respectful, and they haven't hurt anyone.

"In fact, I blame the government for this. This government is corrupt, as the so-called rebels are charging, and it's true that there are more poor people in Manila today than before Cory Aquino came to power."

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