Envoys plead for release of sick hostage

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Muslim rebels holding 21 mainly foreign hostages in the Philippines will decide today whether to release a sick German woman, but show no signs of being about to free the rest of the group.

The appointment by the Manila government of two new negotiators, including a former Libyan ambassador to the Philippines with experience of securing hostage releases, had raised hopes of a peaceful resolution to the 18-day saga. But Rajab Azzarouq, the Libyan diplomat, and Ghazali Ibrahim, a Muslim cleric, returned empty-handed from their first meeting with Abu Sayyaf rebels on the southern island of Jolo yesterday.

The 21 - nine Malaysians, two Filipinos, three Germans, two French nationals, two South Africans, two Finns and a Lebanese woman - were kidnapped from a Malaysian resort island off Borneo and taken by boat to Jolo. A Philippine presidential envoy, Roberto Aventajado, said that the guerrillas had submitted "a few demands" to the negotiators. He declined to say what theywere, or whether they included a ransom.

Abu Sayyaf is known to want the release from prison in the United States of two Muslim extremists, one of whom masterminded the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York. The group has been fighting for an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines. Mr Azzarouq said the guerrillas would decide within 24 hours whether to relinquish Renate Wallert, 57, who suffers from high blood pressure and is in poor health. Negotiations are to resume today, and Mr Azzarouq said he was "quietly optimistic" of making headway.

Nelsa Amin, a doctor who accompanied the negotiators to the three-hour meeting in hills near the coastal town of Patikul, said the team was refused access to the hostages but managed to deliver medicines. She said she pleaded with the rebels to free at least the ill captives on humanitarian grounds, but was ignored. "I am sad and discouraged," she said.

A Learjet is on stand-by at Jolo airport for the evacuation of Ms Wallert, who was kidnapped with her husband, Werner, and son, Marc.