Plight of hostages worsens as Philippines warns EU envoy

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The Independent Online

The Philippines government insisted yesterday that the kidnapping of 21 foreign tourists and resort workers by Muslim guerrillas was a domestic issue and warned other countries not to intervene. The arrival of the European Union's most senior diplomat, Javier Solana, who is expected in Manila today, could merely inflame tensions, it said.

Meanwhile, newly released video footage showed the hostages confined to a large cage made of branches and banana leaves, by rebels armed with M-16 rifles, hand grenades and long knives.

The pictures, shot by a television crew that visited the rebels' hide-out in the mountains of Jolo island last weekend, reveal the strain on the hostages of more than a fortnight in captivity. They appeared exhausted and despairing as they begged the Philippine military to suspend operations so that negotiations for their release could progress.

After talking tough on Sunday, the Philippine President, Joseph Estrada, offered an olive branch to the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas yesterday, saying his government would be willing to consider giving additional economic aid to the impoverished southern region. He said that, as a matter of policy, the government did not pay ransoms. But he added: "We're of course prepared to consider community development projects in the area."

Abu Sayyaf, which seized the 21 people from the Malaysian resort island of Sipadan, is one of two separatist groups fighting for an independent Islamic state in the south. It has also called for the release of three Muslim extremists from jails in the United States. The government has responded coolly to a demand by the rebels for ambassadors from all of the nations to which their captives belong - France, Germany, Finland, Lebanon, South Africa and Malaysia - to take part in talks. The demand was made in a letter brought out by the journalists who visited their camp.

Ricardo Puno, the presidential spokesman, said: "To put it quite bluntly, our initial reaction to this is not very positive. We must discuss this some more because the principle involved here is whether they should be allowed to specify conditions under which talks will be held."

The rebels yesterday freed a Filipino bank employee who was kidnapped three months ago, in response to his family paying a ransom. Patrick Viray had been held on Jolo, but only briefly with the 21 hostages. He said that his captors wished him good luck before dumping him on a highway. "I was treated well," he said.

The video footage prompted renewed concerns about the health of Renate Wallert, aGerman hostage. Her fellow captives said she suffered from high blood pressure and was in very poor health. A Lebanese hostage, Marie Moarbes, said: "Nobody here can care for her and she's in a very critical situation. She can't take it any more." Another woman is thought to be suffering from a urinary tract infection.

The television crew brought out letters by the hostages to their families. Sonia Wendling and Stephane Loisy, both French, wrote: "We live like animals in the dirt under the trees." The two South Africans, Callie and Monique Strydom, wrote: "We hear no news and fear that nothing is happening ensuring our release."