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Philippines Sends Group to Find Kidnappers and Learn Demands

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Philippines’ chief hostage negotiator sent eight emissaries into the jungles of Jolo island Saturday in hopes of locating kidnappers holding 21 hostages--most of them foreigners--and finding out the captors’ demands.

So far, the kidnappers--members of a radical Islamic group known as Abu Sayyaf--have made no written demands but have spoken of wanting money and the release of terrorists held in the United States. At one point, they said they would negotiate only with Robin Padilla, a Philippine action-movie star. But when he showed up, it turned out that they merely wanted their pictures taken with him.

“We really don’t know what they want,” said negotiator Nur Misuari, who once headed an Islamic separatist movement here on Mindanao island but joined the government’s side in 1996. “We’re prepared to listen, but if their demands aren’t realistic, it doesn’t make much sense to negotiate with them.”

The hostages were snatched April 23 from a diving resort on the tiny Malaysian island of Sipadan and taken by speedboat to Jolo, an hour away. The group--made up of 10 Malaysians, a German family of three, a South African couple, two Finnish men, two French nationals, a Lebanese woman and a Filipina--was held in primitive conditions and moved several times.

“I think some of them are becoming weaker and weaker,” Misuari said. “They’re not used to moving in the mountains. This is rugged terrain. We’ve got information that the Lebanese lady is sick and asking for the Red Cross to send an ambulance or a helicopter.”

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Two thousand government soldiers have cordoned off the general area where the hostages are believed to be held but have not attacked for fear of risking the captives’ lives. Western diplomats said the hostages have been separated into two groups--one made up exclusively of Malaysians--and moved to new locations about two miles from the bamboo hut where they were initially held. Rumors were rife here Saturday that a deal was in the works to win the release of the Malaysians, who are Muslim.

Foreign governments whose nationals are among the hostages have urged the Philippines to exercise restraint, and a French diplomat visiting Manila said Saturday that he had received assurances from Philippine Foreign Secretary Domingo Siazon and a top aide to President Joseph Estrada that the army did not intend to launch a risky rescue mission.

“They were clear on the fact that they have opted against any storming operation which will put [the hostages’] lives at risk,” Dominique Girard, director of Asia and Oceania affairs at the French Foreign Ministry, told the news service Agence France-Presse.

Abu Sayyaf, or Father of the Sword, was formed in 1991 to fight for a separate Islamic state in Mindanao, but it has been at most little more than a gangster outfit. Members have burned movie theaters and ferryboats, shaken down motorists at roadside checkpoints, and kidnapped priests and nuns for ransom. Kidnappings, usually for nonpolitical aims, are so common in the Philippines that ransom is referred to as “room and board” money.

“Personally, I feel we should leave this whole crisis in the hands of the military,” Zamboanga’s mayor, Maria Lobregat, said Saturday. “People are fed up with the kidnappings, the lawlessness. We can never develop economically while this is going on. I’m not being anti-Muslim at all when I say this. I’m being pro-peace. We’re all Filipinos.

“I told President Estrada on the phone today that the military should push on against the rebels. He said, ‘But I’m under a lot of pressure from the bishops to go easy.’ And I said, ‘The bishops don’t live here, and they don’t know what’s going on.’ ”

In further signs of a conflict that has been going on here for nearly 30 years, a radio station and hospital staffers in the city of Butuan reported Saturday that two bus bombs had exploded on Mindanao, killing six people and injuring 35 others.

And on the adjacent island of Basilan, troops unearthed two headless corpses--confirming the claim by a second band of Abu Sayyaf rebels last month that they had decapitated two hostages.

Four members of the second group of 27 hostages were found slain Wednesday. Troops have rescued at least a dozen people, and the rebels are still holding about 10 captives.

Estrada was scheduled to visit Zamboanga, headquarters of the military’s southern command, today. He was to address army troops and meet with Misuari, but it was not clear if he had any new ideas for solving the hostage crisis. He has refused to consider the creation of an Islamic state on Mindanao but entered into peace negotiations last year with the largest separatist group on the island, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The MILF pulled out of the talks last week.


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