German agents 'in Philippine hostage bungle'

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The Independent Online

The deal that led to the release of most of the hostages held by Muslim rebels on the Philippine island of Jolo was very nearly scuppered by Germany's bungling secret agents, the government in Berlin admitted yesterday.

The deal that led to the release of most of the hostages held by Muslim rebels on the Philippine island of Jolo was very nearly scuppered by Germany's bungling secret agents, the government in Berlin admitted yesterday.

As fears mounted for the remaining captives, including two French journalists and an American, Germany confirmed that negotiations were badly hampered by its own spies getting in each other's way. The Libyans, who eventually paid the ransom demanded by the Abu Sayyaf group, were approached by two different outfits claiming to represent the German intelligence service BND.

The confusion "cost us and the hostages at least one month", said Ludger Volmer, State Secretary at the German Foreign Ministry, in an interview with Stern magazine. The affair "caused great damage to foreign policy", he added.

Soon after the kidnapping in the Philippines of 21 people, including three Germans, the BND put out its feelers to the Gaddafi clan.

The BND's president, August Hanning, flew to Tripoli on a secret mission in June, and a month later visited Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's son, Sail el Islam Gaddafi, who runs a "charity" from his office in Vienna. Bernd Schmidbauer, former co-ordinator of Germany's secret services, also reactivated his Libyan contacts. Then Werner Mauss, an independent secret agent who had been used by Mr Schmidbauer in his past dealings with kidnappers, showed up in the Philippines, posing as a Libyan intermediary.

What the Libyans failed to appreciate for a long time was that Mr Schmidbauer was acting on his own initiative. And Mr Mauss, a man with a chequered past who has been convicted in Belgium for attempting to bribe a police officer and was last seen emerging from a Colombian jail, was either working for Mr Schmidbauer or for himself.

Mr Mauss makes his living from ransoms. He had a successful business mediating between German companies and Colombian kidnappers, until he was arrested four years ago in mysterious circumstances. His ventures then caused embarrassment in Germany after the revelation that he had been hired occasionally by the BND for "dirty" jobs.

For Germany at least, there is a happy ending to the muddled Jolo saga. All three German hostages were freed, after $25m was donated by the Libyan "charity". But perhaps if matters had been handled with more efficiency, the remaining hostages would not now be caught in the crossfire as Philippine troops close in on the rebel stronghold.

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