Gaddafi's hostage release deal collapses

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The Independent Online

It was to have been one of the most bizarre and murky diplomatic feats in recent memory, with an international cast - two Germans, two Finns, two South Africans, six French, several dozen Filipinos and a Libyan dictator. But yesterday Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's attempts to rehabilitate himself with the international community foundered, for the time being at least, thousands of miles from Tripoli on a jungly island in the South China Sea.

It was to have been one of the most bizarre and murky diplomatic feats in recent memory, with an international cast - two Germans, two Finns, two South Africans, six French, several dozen Filipinos and a Libyan dictator. But yesterday Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's attempts to rehabilitate himself with the international community foundered, for the time being at least, thousands of miles from Tripoli on a jungly island in the South China Sea.

Four months after they were kidnapped from a Malaysian holiday resort, the ordeal of 24 hostages - 12 Westerners and 12 Filipinos - appeared to be in its final hours. After endless negotiations, the guerrillas of the Islamic group Abu Sayyaf had promised to release them from the camp where they had been held in wretched conditions on the island of Jolo in the southern Philippines. But last night the hostages were still in captivity, raising more questions about the extraordinary deal struck for their release.

"We regret to announce that our mission has been unsuccessful," Robert Aventajado, the Philippines government's chief negotiator in the crisis, announced yesterday after returning from the journey into the jungle which was supposed to have brought the captives to safety. Ambassadors from the Western hostages' countries, waiting in the nearby city of Zamboanga after weeks of tense negotiations, were said by aides to have wept when they received the news.

It should all have been so straightforward. After being released from their ordeal, the Western captives were to have been whisked away to Zamboanga, where the next stage of their journey home awaited them: not to Johannesburg, Helsinki and Paris, but to Tripoli, for an audience with the man to whom they owed their release, Colonel Gaddafi.

The deal which fell through yesterday has, officially at least, been brokered by the Libyan government, via a former ambassador named Rajab Azzarouq. Millions of US dollars - $25 million according to newspaper reports - were to be directed from Tripoli to the southern Philippines. The Libyans insist it is their money and that it will go towards the development of this impoverished corner of south-east Asia. Sceptics suspect that it originates in the home countries of the Western captives and that it will go directly to Abu Sayyaf, enabling them to buy more guns and bombs, and setting a most dangerous precedent by rewarding hostage takers.

French and German officials insist that they are giving no cash rebate or diplomatic quid pro quo to Libya for paying for the hostages' release. Officially, the sole benefit that Libya, and Colonel Gaddafi, will reap is the kudos of welcoming the Western captives on to Libyan soil. France, Germany, Finland and South Africa reluctantly agreed that Colonel Gaddafi could organise a liberation ceremony in Tripoli - expected to last up to 10 hours - before the Western hostages return to their homelands.

The French satirical and investigative newspaper Le Canard Enchainé reported last week, however, that Paris had agreed to help President Gaddafi regain respectability in the international community. There are also suggestions that the cash paid to the separatist rebels by a Gaddafi-front charitable organisation will be reimbursed quietly by the Western governments.

French officials deny this allegation. They say that Libya originally wanted the money back but agreed to accept the welcoming ceremony instead. Officials in Paris also insist that the German government made the first contact with Tripoli.

The extent to which the French and other governments have promised to help Libya return to the family of nations remains unclear. But the very use of Tripoli in securing the release of the Western hostages is a step in this direction, and dozens of journalists from their home countries have been flown in to Tripoli by the Libyans in anticipation of the public relations coup.

Yesterday's release failed to happen because of Abu Sayyaf's insistence on delivering their captives in batches - two first, the rest at some time in the future. They have already released three Malaysians and one Filipino, on Friday. The Philippines' President, Joseph Estrada, has said that there must be a single release. "Two Europeans were being released but because of the policy of the president - all or nothing - Ambassador Azzarouq did not receive the two being released," said Mr Aventajado.

In a letter, Abu Sayyaf leaders said: "The [Philippine army] is preparing to launch a military attack on our people ... further negotiations will take place [when] we are assured that the Philippine government will stop any military attacks."

"I think on the basis of this letter, I guess we have to reassess our position," said Mr Aventajado.

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