Tourist hostages spotted in southern Philippine province

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The Independent Online

The group of hostages abducted last weekend from a Malaysian resort island are being held in the remote southern Philippine province of Sulu, according to Philippine officials.

"They're safe. I can assure you of that," said military intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Jose Calimlim.

Sulu Governor Abdusakur Tan said the 21 hostages, including at least 10 foreigners, are probably being held by local members of the Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim extremist group.

The Abu Sayyaf is the smaller of two groups fighting for an independent Islamic state in the predominantly Catholic Philippines. They are currently under attack at their stronghold in nearby Basilan province by Philippine troops attempting to rescue 27 other hostages kidnapped more than five weeks ago.

The kidnappings, the worst the Philippines has experienced in years, have drawn attention to the country's long-simmering Muslim rebellion.

Tan said he would meet with military officials, including Defence Secretary Orlando Mercado, to discuss whether to negotiate for the hostages' release.

"We have been able to pinpoint the area already," Mercado said. "We have no information as regards their demands. We do not know what they want."

The Abu Sayyaf's commander in Sulu, Galid Andang, is suspected of having masterminded the kidnappings of three Hong Kong fishery workers in 1998 and a businessman freed in January after being held for 70 days, the military says.

Sulu is a sparsely populated, impoverished collection of islands at the Philippines' southern tip.

The 21 hostages were abducted on Sunday by six men armed with AK-47s and a rocket launcher on Malaysia's Sipadan Island, a famous diving site about one hour by boat from Sulu. They were taken on high-speed boats toward the Philippines.

An American couple, James and Mary Murphy of Rochester, New York, escaped by refusing to swim out to the kidnappers' boa. Foreigners from Germany, France, South Africa, Finland and Lebanon are being held along with a Filipino worker and nine Malaysians, authorities said.

Seas in the area, flanked by the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, are speckled with hundreds of islands and crisscrossed by traders, migrants, pirates and smugglers.

The Abu Sayyaf has been accused of involvement in many previous ransom kidnappings, extortions, and attacks against Christians.

A spokesman at the rebels' Basilan mountain stronghold initially claimed responsibility for the abductions but later said he was uncertain whether the group was involved.