Philippine troops try to head off escaping kidnappers

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Philippine troops attempted Saturday to head off Muslim rebels who broke through military lines and are believed to be escaping with 21 hostages, including 10 foreign tourists, military officials said.

The officials confirmed that at least some Abu Sayyaf rebels slipped through a military cordon around the area on Jolo Island in the southern Philippines where they had been holding their captives.

The Muslim extremists were believed to be taking the hostages, abducted April 23 from a resort island in neighboring Malaysia, into the hills of Patikul town, the officials said.

Two soldiers were killed and 6 wounded in four separate clashes with the rebels in Talipao town on Friday, the military's Southern Command said Saturday.

Government envoys made contact with the rebels Saturday and hoped to open formal negotiations later in the day, said Yusop Jikiri, an aide to the government's negotiator.

Abu Sayyaf was to submit written demands on Saturday, government negotiator Nur Misuari said, but the clashes could mean a delay.

They had initially demanded the pullout of troops near their hideout in Talipao.

"These people are now on the run, trying to look for a new place to keep their hostages," Misuari said. "For us to commence any formal talks, we need what they call a climate of confidence that there would be no betrayal."

Forty-six more boxes of food and medicine are to be sent to the hostages, including Coca-Cola from Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohommad, he said.

Representatives of the negotiators who visited the rebels Thursday had said that the guerrillas were already outside the military cordon and had all 21 captives with them.

Contacts between the kidnappers and the negotiators were cut last week after hundreds of troops encircled the area where the hostages had been held in a small bamboo hut. A series of clashes erupted on Tuesday and Wednesday as the rebels attempted to escape.

The rebels have threatened to behead two foreign hostages if the military does not remove its troops from the area.

A rebel leader, Abu Escobar, said in a radio interview broadcast Friday that the group is discussing whether to go through with the threat.

"We will see. If the situation remains, the surprise may happen," he told DXRZ Radio in Zamboanga.

The government reiterated that the troops would stay.

"Our policy in this situation is containment in response to the request of foreign governments," presidential Executive Secretary Ronaldo Zamora said Friday. "We don't want to assault the area where the hostages ... are being held, but we cannot allow the kidnappers to get away either."

The Jolo hostages consist of 10 Malaysians, three Germans, two French nationals, two South Africans, two Finns, one Lebanese and one Filipino.

Several of their governments have urged restraint by the military and called for a peaceful solution.

Misuari too was frustrated by the continued violence.

"I do not want to negotiate through the barrel of a gun, but through Islamic diplomacy. I want to talk to them to bring them back to their senses," Misuari said.

Accounts by the representatives of the negotiators contradict earlier reports that some of the hostages had either died or escaped.

Meanwhile, troops on the nearby island of Basilan continued to search for Abu Sayyaf rebels who are believed to still be holding several people from a separate group of 27 Filipino hostages seized nearly seven weeks ago, the military said.

Fifteen of the hostages were rescued by troops Wednesday but four, including a Roman Catholic priest, were killed, reportedly shot in the back by their captors.

Survivors said some of the Basilan hostages were regularly beaten and the priest was tortured.