36,000 flee assaulton rebels holding hostages

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More than 36,000 villagers have fled their homes to escape an army assault on Muslim rebels holding 17 hostages on a small southern Philippine island, officials said yesterday.

More than 36,000 villagers have fled their homes to escape an army assault on Muslim rebels holding 17 hostages on a small southern Philippine island, officials said yesterday.

After 10 days of fighting on Jolo island, the army still has not found the hostages, military officials said. The Defence Secretary, Orlando Mercado, said two Abu Sayyaf rebels were killed in a clash yesterday, bringing the number of guerrillas believed dead to 105. One government soldier has been killed and six others wounded, the army said.

Amid unconfirmed reports of civilian casualties and heavy damage to villages from the attack, the military insisted only two civilians have been killed and four injured. Independent verification has been impossible because the military has blocked access to many areas of Jolo.

Brigadier General Narciso Abaya, the commander of the assault, who initially predicted it would be over in six days now says that the military is no longer estimating how long it will take. "Before you can rescue them you have to find them," he said. "This is a very difficult mission. They just keep on running. They don't fight us."

Some soldiers were pursuing the rebels on another island, he said, but refused to elaborate. There have been unconfirmed reports that some Abu Sayyaf were able to escape to nearby Basilan island.

A lawyer claiming to represent the rebel commander, Ghalib "Robot" Andang, sent a letter to President Joseph Estrada saying that Andang is ready to surrender if military operations halt. "We are confident that if Ghalib Andang will be given due process or fair trial, the other Abu Sayyaf leaders will follow," Oliver Lozano wrote.

Mr Estrada halted talks and attacked the rebels on 16 September after they kidnapped new hostages. The decision has been widely supported by Filipinos and the US. (AP)

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