First Western hostage freed by kidnappers in Philippines

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Islamic kidnappers in the southern Philippines released an ailing German woman yesterday, the first of a group of western hostages to be released since their dramatic abduction 12 weeks ago.

Islamic kidnappers in the southern Philippines released an ailing German woman yesterday, the first of a group of western hostages to be released since their dramatic abduction 12 weeks ago.

Rene Wallert, 57, was handed over to Filipino government negotiators at a remote spot on the island of Jolo, where 19 hostages have been held since being snatched by boat in April from a Malaysian tourist island. Her release, on her 34th wedding anniversary, raised hopes that the other 19 hostages will soon be freed, and raised questions about whether the guerrillas who abducted her have profited from her release.

The Jolo hostages were victims of Abu Sayyaf, or "Sword of God", a militant group which is campaigning for an independent Muslim state in the southern Philippines island of Mindanao.

The Phillipines army reported yesterday that another guerrilla group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), had shot dead 21 Christians, including a pregnant woman, in a mosque in Mindanao's Lanao del Sur province.

The army said the victims were among 29 people kidnapped by the MILF on Sunday. They were executed the same night. A spokesman for the MILF denied the allegation and suggested the military was to blame for the killings.

The war with the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf hostage drama have presented President Joseph Estrada with his toughest security challenge since he took office two years ago.

The physical and psychological health of Mrs Wallert, who left her husband and son in captivity in the rebels' camp, had been matters of great concern. According to foreign doctors who were allowed to pay intermittent calls on the hostages, she suffered from high blood pressure and chronic anxiety.

The former hostage, dressed in Muslim-style trousers and rubber sandals, was met by the Phillipines' chief negotiator, Roberto Aventajado. Mrs Wallert looked weak and exhausted, and walked slowly. "I'm tired," she said. "I would like to go home right now." The two travelled to the island's capital in an armoured personnel carrier, and flew by helicopter and jet to Manila, where she boarded a plane to Germany.

The German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, said: "We are very happy that Mrs Wallert is free. We will continue with all our strength to seek the release of all other hostages. I am confident that Mr Aventajado will be successful in reaching a complete solution to the hostage drama."

Mrs Wallert's husband, Werner, and son, Marc, are still in captivity, together with five French citizens, two Finns, two South Africans, a Lebanese, seven Malaysians. For three months, they have lived in the jungle in conditions of hardship and constant fear; several have become seriously ill and more than one has spoken of suicidal thoughts. Abu Sayyaf had demanded US$1m (£670,000) for the release of each hostage, but it was not immediately known whether such a sum had been paid for Mrs Wallert.

Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor, said: "What had to be done was done.To give out the details would really make no sense. You shouldn't even try to find them out."

Abu Sayyaf leaders appear to have been squabbling among themselves, hence the group's abandonment of its demand for an independent nation, in favour of demanding government assistance for Jolo. Two Malaysians have also been freed recently.

Abu Sayyaf has so far released two Malaysians from the group seized at the Sipadan Island diving resort. The second, freed last Friday, was in charge of security at the resort. Abdul Jawah Salawat was freed after Malaysian negotiators gave Abu Sayyaf 50 sacks of rice and an undisclosed amount of money for "board and lodging," the Malaysian negotiators said. The government also promised to provide development assistance for Jolo, at the southern tip of the Philippines. In private, officials said Mrs Wallert's release was a gesture of goodwill by the rebels and no ransom was paid.

"I'm very positive this will result in the release of the other foreign hostages at a faster rate," said Major General Guillermo Ruiz, the negotiating panel's security adviser.