Philippino Muslim rebels free five hostages

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The Independent Online

Muslim rebels freed five foreign hostages, some stunned and crying, from their jungle hide-out Sunday, leaving seven other Westerners still held on a remote Philippine island.

Muslim rebels freed five foreign hostages, some stunned and crying, from their jungle hide-out Sunday, leaving seven other Westerners still held on a remote Philippine island.

The Abu Sayyaf separatist guerrillas released the four women and one man after Libya agreed to pay $1m for each, negotiators said.

"We were released, but there are still people who were left behind," said French-Lebanese citizen Marie Moarbes, tears welling in her eyes.

The others freed were Sonia Wendling of France, South African Monique Strydom, German Werner Wallert, and Maryse Burgot, a French journalist.

"My son is still there. You don't expect me to be happy," Wallert said.

An envoy said Wallert and his son, Marc, cried and embraced for a long time before parting, with each insisting that the other should go. Finally, the envoy led the father away. Wallert's wife, Renate, was freed earlier.

Wendling, rubbing her eyes in apparent disbelief, said she could never forget her four months in captivity. "I don't know how to describe the experience," she said.

The freed hostages, most wearing rubber sandals and carrying their few belongings in rice sacks, were welcomed by their ambassadors as they stepped off helicopters in the nearby port city of Zamboanga.

All but the journalist were kidnapped April 23 while vacationing at a Malaysian diving resort and brought by boat to Jolo, an impoverished island near the Philippines' southern tip. Burgot was seized with two other French television journalists last month when they visited the rebel camp.

The Abu Sayyaf, the smaller of two Muslim rebel groups in the southern Philippines, says it is fighting for an independent Islamic state. The government insists the organization is a group of bandits practicing kidnapping and piracy.

The rebels have been holding the hostages for months in a jungle on Jolo, 940 kilometers (580 miles) south of Manila. Before the kidnapping they were estimated to number about 500 in the province but have grown to 5,000 as many recruits have been attracted by the large ransom payments, a military official said.

Still in captivity are one French, one German, two Finns and one South African kidnapped from the Malaysian resort, two French television journalists, and 12 Filipino Christian evangelists who went to the rebel camp to pray for the hostages.

The military estimates the rebels were paid more than $5.5m for the earlier releases of nine Malaysians and the German woman.

The rebels have insisted on freeing the hostages in batches to avert any military attack.

The hostages freed Sunday were to be flown on a Libyan jet to Tripoli to meet with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Libya has long-standing ties to the Muslim rebels in the mostly Catholic Philippines.

Libyan Ambassador Saleem Adam denied that his country is trying to improve its international image by bankrolling the multimillion-dollar ransom.

"We Libyans, we know what we are doing," he said. "This is a humanitarian mission."

"It has no other motivation," he said.

Chief government negotiator Robert Aventajado said he was happy for the families of the hostages and also for the Philippines.

"But you know, there's still a lot of work to be done, so we won't stop until we're successful in releasing all of them," he said.

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