France condemns Philippine assault on rebels

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The Independent Online

As fierce fighting between Philippine forces and Muslim rebels on the island of Jolo continued into its second day yesterday, France issued a strong diplomatic protest over the assault amid fears for the safety of the two French journalists being held hostage.

As fierce fighting between Philippine forces and Muslim rebels on the island of Jolo continued into its second day yesterday, France issued a strong diplomatic protest over the assault amid fears for the safety of the two French journalists being held hostage.

The French Foreign Ministry said: "We have no reliable information about the situation of our two compatriots being held hostage and who are no longer to be found, according to the authorities in Manila, in the camp of the kidnappers that has been invaded by the Philippine army."

The statement followed comments by the Philippine armed forces chief, General Engelo Reyes, that the Abbu Sayaf rebels were on the run and appeared to have taken all the kidnap victims with them.

"The fact is that [the rebels] are fleeing and they have not left any hostages as casualties," he said.

The Abbu Sayaf rebels are holding the 19 hostages - including the two French nationals, three Malaysians and an American - on the island of Jolo, 600 miles south of Manila. The uprising, which began almost five years ago, has humiliated the Philippine government.

The blitz on Abbu Sayaf positions began at dawn on Saturday, after Manila's patience finally ran out.

The President of the Philippines, Joseph Estrada, travelled to nearby Zamboanga City yesterday, where he told reporters he was seeking the hostages' freedom and the rebels' destruction. "The armed forces and the police should exhaust all means to save and rescue the victims from the Abu Sayyaf captors," he said. "We should destroy the Abu Sayyaf so that they can longer engage in kidnap for ransom activities." He said the operation could last up to a week.

Filipinos have applauded Mr Estrada's decision to order an attack but analysts say that regardless of whether the attack is successful, the surge in his popularity could be shortlived.

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