Hostages escape as Filipinos attack rebel camp

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The Independent Online

Two French hostages were flying home yesterday after making a daring night escape from Islamic rebels during a government offensive on the island of Jolo in the Philippines.

Two French hostages were flying home yesterday after making a daring night escape from Islamic rebels during a government offensive on the island of Jolo in the Philippines.

Jean-Jacques Le Garrec and Roland Madura - members of a France 2 television crew, taken captive 10 weeks ago - slipped unseen from a column of Abu Sayyaf rebels who were fleeing government troops in the middle of the night. The two men hid behind a building and then ran several miles down a jungle road before hailing a passing army truck.

The Filipino government delightedly claimed the credit for their rescue yesterday but the two men said their lives had been threatened more by the week-old army offensive than by the rebels. They had decided to run for it because their chances of being rescued, or ransomed, alive were "visibly reducing".

Mr Le Garrec said the manner of their escape was an "immense bras d'honneur" (rude gesture) to "everything that had been put in place in the last few days". He was clearly referring to the Filipino army offensive and bombardments as much as the actions of the Islamic rebels. He said that the attacks on the rebels on the tiny island at the southern tip of the Philippines were a "punitive exercise", not a rescue attempt. Mr Madura said the Filipino military seemed to be bombing the island "at random", without care for the lives of civilians or hostages.

The French government, which had publicly criticised the Filipino military campaign, nevertheless back-tracked yesterday and thanked Manila for freeing its citizens. "If the offensive had not happened, we have to have the honesty to admit that they would still be hostages," said the French Foreign Minister, Hubert Védrine.

Mr Le Garrec and Mr Madura, a cameraman and sound- man, were taken hostage in July while investigating the fate of Western captives of the rebels, including four French tourists. Most of the Western hostages have now been released, after the payment last month of a multi-million-dollar ransom by the Libyan government. Seventeen people, including an American, remain in rebel hands.

Mr Le Garrec said they had been well treated by the rebels until the offensive began. Since then, they had been dragged from camp to camp in all-night jungle marches to escape army patrols and bombardments.

"For the last four days we felt our chances of getting out alive were visibly reducing," said Mr Le Garrec. "The idea of escape became more and more pressing. Roland wanted to plunge into some dark part of the jungle while we walked along in file and you could hardly see the person in front of you. But I thought there was too great a risk of getting lost and wanted to wait until we crossed a road.

"At the first road we reached, there was confusion among the rebels because they were scared of army patrols. We saw a little house and we hid behind it and watched the rest of the column pass, then ran down the road and hid in the jungle. It was eight at night. We stayed there until four in the morning.

"Finally, there was a shower and we took advantage of the noise of the rain to get back on the road and run four or five kilometres and hide again."

Eventually an army truck came along and the two Frenchmen came out of hiding and explained who they were.

Mr Madura said that they had been hiding from the civilians on the island as much as the rebels. Any islander who recognised them would have returned them to the rebels in the hope of claiming part of the Libyan ransom. "As far as anyone on Jolo was concerned," he said, "we were a million dollars on legs."

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