Libyan envoy offers fresh hope for Philippines hostages

A Libyan envoy is in talks with Muslim separatists holding 21 Western and Asian hostages, hoping to press for the release of an ill German woman.

A doctor accompanying him had medicine, oxygen, food, clothing, and chocolate for the captives. She was also taking stretchers in case the rebels agreed to free two captives, a German woman who has suffered two strokes according to her family, and a French man with a urinary infection.

"They are now ready to meet us," said Muslim cleric Ibrahim Ghazali, a member of the negotiating team, after talking with representatives just back from the hide-out.

Abdul Rajab Azzarouq, the former Libyan ambassador to the Philippines, is on the remote southern island of Jolo hoping to use his extensive personal contacts with Muslims in the region to help free the hostages.

"I hope we can bring down the German woman. She is our priority because she is sick," Ghazali said.

An envoy from the European Union, Javier Solana, was also upbeat, saying before he left Manila on Wednesday, "I have good news ... I do hope very much that we will see her soon."

Violence in the impoverished southern region of Mindanao, where Muslim guerrillas are fighting to carve an Islamic nation from the predominantly Christian Philippines, has increased in recent weeks, leaving scores dead and driving more than 100,000 people from their homes.

The hostages - three Germans, two French, two South Africans, two Finns, a Lebanese, nine Malaysians and two Filipinos - were snatched from a diving resort on the Malaysian island of Sipadan on April 23 and taken to Jolo, an hour's boat ride away.

They are held by the Abu Sayyaf, the smaller and more extreme of two Muslim rebel groups active here. The Abu Sayyaf are also holding in nearby Basilan province a separate group of Filipino hostages seized from schools. After clashes, killings and rescues, approximately eight people, mostly children, are thought to remain in their hands.

Bombings and clashes between troops and the larger Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, have been on the rise since late last month, when soldiers attacked rebels holding a highway along the edge of their main camp.

Since January, 81 soldiers have been killed in operations throughout Mindanao, 474 wounded, and 21 are missing, while 115 civilians have been killed, most by guerrilla violence, the military said Wednesday.

Reinforcements were being sent in from other regions, TV reports said Wednesday.

In Manila, a bomb was found in a fanny pack at the National Museum and defused on Wednesday morning, said the chief guard, Roberto de Ocampo. It was the same type, he said, as one that exploded in a central Manila park early Saturday, injuring a man sleeping nearby. Local police blamed that explosion on gang rivalry.

Another bomb was disarmed in the Mindanao city of Zamboanga, near the island where the 21 hostages are held, police Chief Karib Muammil said. The bomb was left near City Hall. No group immediately claimed responsibility.

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