Filipino rebels free hostages

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The Independent Online

Muslim rebels have released four Europeans from 20 weeks of captivity in the southern Philippines, which one of the hostages described as a "nightmare".

Muslim rebels have released four Europeans from 20 weeks of captivity in the southern Philippines, which one of the hostages described as a "nightmare".

Government emissaries, who were ambushed on the way to collect them, flew the hostages to freedom yesterday from the guerrilla hideout. All four, who were released after Libya mediated in the crisis, were due to fly to Tripoli today.

At least three people were killed and more than 20 wounded when gunmen ambushed the emissaries, who were travelling by road to the rebel camp on the rugged island of Jolo, apparently in an attempt to steal ransom money. But the hostages, Finns Risto Mirco Vahanen and Seppo Juhani Franti, German Marc Wallert and Frenchman Stephane Loisy, made it out after officials sent in three army helicopters to ferry them from rebel territory.

"Wow!" said Wallert, 26, raising his hands in triumph after landing at the airport on Jolo. "It's great."

All four men, who had grown long beards in captivity, looked bedraggled and tired as they carried sacks containing their belongings. Dressed in shorts and dirty T-shirts, they said they were overjoyed at being released, but also angered by what they had undergone.

"I feel great but I am feeling sorry for those left behind," said Mr Vahanen. "We know what a hell it was. Luckily no one committed suicide but it wasn't far away." He added: "I am angry. People have to take care that these kind of things shouldn't be allowed to take place. I feel very sorry for the faith of Islam being misused... the way we have seen, it turned out to be just pure robbery."

"I will kiss the earth of Finland when I get back," he said. "This has been a nightmare for all of us."

The four were kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf rebels on Easter Sunday, 23 April, while on holiday on the Sipadan island resort, in Malaysia. Sixteen others abducted at the same time, including Mr Wallert's parents and Mr Loisy's girlfriend, Sonia Wendling, have been released. A Filipino resort worker is still being held, along with two French television journalists kidnapped in July on Jolo. Another rebel faction is holding an American abducted on 28 August.

It was unclear when the others would be freed. "Things have changed now," said Libyan envoy Rajab Azzarouq, referring to the gun battle earlier in the day. "There is a lot of tension - we have to see how we can re-establish contact."

Libya, which became involved in the crisis in the hope of raising its profile after years of isolation over the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, has denied paying any ransom, although local officials say up to $1m (£700,000) per hostage has been paid.

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