Bandits escape soldiers' attempt to rescue children

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Philippine soldiers fought intense battles yesterday with the separatist rebels who are holding 27 children hostage on a southern island, but attempts to rescue the captives came to nothing.

The troops sprayed tear gas into a tunnel complex where the Abu Sayyaf Muslim extremist group is believed to have hidden at least some of the school children, seized as human shields from two schools six weeks ago.

The rebels belong to the same extremist grouping which kidnapped 10 foreign tourists from a resort in Malaysia last month.

The sound of a child's voice alerted the soldiers, who were cautiously searching the extensive tunnel system, believed to have been built by Japanese soldiers during the Second World War.

The Abu Sayyaf rebels are thought to have fled with their hostages through a side exit from the tunnels into the dense jungle. Children's sandals, generators, weapons and 100 sacks of rice were left behind.

The raids on the rebels' bases came after 1,500 troops overran the densely forested camp on the slopes of Mount Ponoh Mahajid on southern Basilan island.

The Abu Sayyaf, thought to number several hundred armed men, is believed to be behind numerous kidnappings and other attacks in southern Mindanao, one of the Philippines' poorest regions.

The child hostages are among nearly 50 seized after an attack on a military outpost. Some of the captives were released, but the kidnappers claimed two weeks ago to have beheaded two teachers after the government rejected some of their demands.

Among the long-standing demands of the rebels is for the release of three terrorists from US jails, including Ramzi Yousef, convicted in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

Meanwhile, the separate group of Abu Sayyaf members who abducted 21 people, including 10 foreign tourists, from a Malaysian resort on 23 April, issued a partial list of demands on Saturday.

These included the introduction of Islamic law and the return to barter. Philippines President Joseph Estrada has already ruled out the possibility of ransom payments.

Arlyn de la Cruz, a reporter taken to visit the hostages on Saturday, said they were weak, hungry, and crowded into a small bamboo hut with no sanitation.

Lack of clean water has also given many of them severe diarrhoea, she said.

The captives include tourists from Germany, France, South Africa, Finland and Lebanon, and resort workers from the Philippines and Malaysia.

They are being held in a mountainous area of Talipao on Jolo, a Philippine island about 80 kilometres south-west of Basilan, Ms de la Cruz, who has close ties to the rebels, said.

Jolo island is about an hour by boat from the Malaysian island of Sipadan, where they were abducted.

Ms de la Cruz said the hostages had been fed only twice since their seizure, they had no access to medicine or supplies of fresh water.

The journalist intends to return tomorrow to take food and supplies. She said the hostages were concerned about botched rescue attempts.

"They are hoping there won't be any military operation because they will be removed to another place."

Officials do not believe the two kidnappings, the worst in the Philippines in years, were planned together.