Philippine rebels free five captive Westerners from jungle

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The hostage crisis in the Philippines finally appeared to be nearing its end last night, as the Islamic rebel group, Abu Sayyaf, released five of its Western captives, reportedly in return for ransoms of $1m (£680,000) each.

The hostage crisis in the Philippines finally appeared to be nearing its end last night, as the Islamic rebel group, Abu Sayyaf, released five of its Western captives, reportedly in return for ransoms of $1m (£680,000) each.

A German man, and four women - three French and one South African - were flown by helicopter to the city of Zamboanga from the jungle island of Jolo, where they had spent 18 weeks after being snatched from a diving resort on a Malaysian island on 23 April. From there they were due to travel to Tripoli, for an audience with the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi whose government played a central part in negotiating their release.

"My son is still there - you don't expect me to be happy," said Werner Wallert, a 57-year-old German geography teacher, who had to be dragged away from his son, Marc. Seven Westerners remain at the rebels' jungle camp, along with 12 Christian evangelists from the Philippines who were seized when they went into the jungle to pray for the hostages.

"We were released, but there are still people who were left behind," said a weeping Marie Moarbes, a French citizen of Lebanese origin. "It's not finished yet for us." None of the hostages appeared to be in bad health, but all looked thin and drawn, and several were in tears as they emerged from the jungle.

"We are happy for the families and also for the countries and also for the Philippines," said Robert Aventajado, the chief Filipino negotiator. "But there is still a lot of work to be done. We are not going to stop until we have been successful in releasing all of them."

"I hope that they can recover from their ordeal and come to terms with the events that have happened," the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, said. "Everything must now be done to achieve a quick and non-violent release of the remaining hostages."

The captives were to have been released en masse nine days ago, but the guerrillas reneged on the agreement at the last minute, claiming that the Philippines army was preparing to attack them after the release. The remaining hostages are expected to be set free over the next week, perhaps in several batches.

All the governments concerned officially deny it, but sources close to the negotiators say that the Libyans have agreed to pay $1m for each of the hostages released. They will also fund development projects in the southern Philippines where Abu Sayyaf is one of a number of groups fighting for an independent Islamic state.

An earlier release of hostages earned the kidnappers a reported $5.5m. Before seizing the tourists, the group had no more than a few hundred members; now that number is estimated to have risen to thousands, as people flock to claim a share in Abu Sayyaf's new-found wealth.

The agreement to release the captives almost came unstitched after two suspected members of Abu Sayyaf were arrested last week, attempting to change $240,000 into Philippine pesos. The deal was saved only after the two were freed "on bail" by a local court.

Apart from the guerrillas, the other beneficiary of the crisis has been Libya, which is owed favours by governments all over Europe for its efforts in the negotiations. Paris newspapers have suggested that the French government has promised Colonel Gaddafi that, 12 years after the Lockerbie bombing, Libya will be readmitted to international society as a reward for its work. The governments deny that anything has been formally agreed.

Libyan officials at Zamboanga airport were prevented yesterday by security guards from holding a portrait of Col Gaddafi up in front of television cameras.

Comments