2 Filipinos Released, but No Word on U.S. Hostage

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two hostages freed by rebels in the southern Philippines after reportedly being ransomed for $200,000 reached safety following a two-day trek through the jungle, officials said Saturday.

The pair, Francis Ganzon, 50, and Kimberly Jao, 13, were brought to the capital Saturday to meet President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, but they were unable to confirm the fate of fellow hostage Guillermo Sobero of Corona. The rebels, members of a group known as Abu Sayyaf, claim to have killed him.

Ganzon and Jao, the oldest and youngest of the hostages, were among 17 Filipinos and three Americans seized from a resort on Palawan island three weeks ago.

They were accompanied by Muslim cleric Ustadz Mohaymin Salih, who authorities last week reported was beheaded when he went to the rebel camp to try to negotiate freedom for the hostages.

Ganzon said that he last saw Sobero on Tuesday and that the tourist from Riverside County was tied up. That was the same day that rebel spokesman Abu Sabaya called a radio station and said the kidnappers had beheaded Sobero.

The rebel leader told the other hostages that Sobero was killed because the government was refusing to negotiate.

In an interview with the Radio Mindanao Network, Ganzon said Sobero was shot in the foot during a battle June 3 between federal forces and the rebels in the Basilan island town of Lamitan.

Sobero was limping from the wound, Ganzon said, and was having difficulty keeping up as the group traveled through the jungle.

The ex-hostage also said Sobero had been taking medication since the May 27 kidnapping but had run out of the pills and appeared to be experiencing withdrawal.

Hostages freed earlier said Sobero appeared to be suffering from a nervous breakdown.

The military has been searching for Sobero's body in the area where he was said to have been killed, but there have been no firsthand reports of him for the last five days.

Ganzon said the two other American hostages, Kansas missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham, also were wounded in the Lamitan battle.

Martin Burnham suffered the more serious injury, although it did not appear to be life-threatening, according to Ganzon's account. Gracia Burnham received superficial wounds--"splinters," Ganzon said--from flying debris or shrapnel.

Ganzon said he had not seen the Burnhams since Wednesday, when the hostages were split into three groups.

He praised his captors for trying to take good care of all the hostages and keep them from harm. Although the government calls the kidnappers bandits, Ganzon said they are dedicated to their cause of creating a separate Islamic state in the southern Philippines.

"They do not smoke," he said. "They do not drink. They respect women and feed us first, and every time there is an encounter, they protect us. They are a disciplined group."

Even so, the hostages were suffering from a lack of food and proper shelter, and some were getting sick, he said. He called on Arroyo to call off military action and negotiate with the kidnappers.

The armed forces appear to be gearing up for an assault against the rebels on Basilan, where they escaped with the hostages after seizing them on Palawan, 300 miles to the west.

"For the sake of the hostages, I appeal to the president to halt the military operations and try to sit down and negotiate and talk, because the hostages have a right to life and safety," he said. "Their lives have taken a back seat to this [military] operation. Their health is deteriorating fast."

Ganzon described Sabaya as "affable" and said the rebel leader likes to kid around. At one point, when the hostages were hungry, Sabaya bought a cow and they all ate beef for two days, he said.

Ganzon said he and the girl were released as a "gesture of goodwill." It has been widely reported in the Philippine press, however, that the rebels had agreed to release two hostages after receiving a ransom of $200,000.

Jao's mother, Letty, and Ganzon's wife, Teresa, who were also kidnapped from Palawan, were released earlier so that they could make arrangements for the payment, local newspapers have said.

The rebels are now holding at least 25 hostages. Eleven of the original 20 victims from Palawan have escaped or been freed, and at least two have been killed. But the rebels have picked up as many as 19 more hostages during their travels to escape from the military.

Arroyo said she was glad that Ganzon and Jao had been freed but reiterated her demand that the rebels release all the hostages unconditionally.

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