Up to six hostages killed as troops attempt rescue

Islamic guerillas seize 100 more captives
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The Independent Online

Islamic rebels holding a group of Filipino hostages killed four of their captives yesterday while in a separate shootout, two Western tourists were reported to have died.

Islamic rebels holding a group of Filipino hostages killed four of their captives yesterday while in a separate shootout, two Western tourists were reported to have died.

The killings came as a wave of separatist violence swept the southern Philippines. There were heightened fears for the safety of 21 people being held by another band of guerrillas from the same fundamentalist group. There were unconfirmed reports that two Westerners had accidentally been killed in a gun battle between their abductors and government troops.

The four confirmed dead were among a group of 27 people, mostly schoolchildren, seized six weeks ago. All the dead were adults, including two teachers and a Roman Catholic priest, apparently hacked and shot by their captors when they were surprised by a military patrol as they prepared to flee the province of Basilan, 600 miles south of Manila, a stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf (Father of the Sword) rebels. Fifteen of the hostages were rescued, including five wounded who were taken to a military hospital.

The two foreigners, among the 21 people seized from a Malaysian diving resort off Borneo 10 days ago, were reported to have died during pre-dawn fighting.

Commander Robot, a leader of Abu Sayyaf, said that a white man had been killed by a stray bullet and a white woman had died of a heart attack. He apologised to their families and said the rebels were not responsible for their deaths.

No details were given of the victims' identities or nationalities, and within a few hours the claim had been disputed by Nur Misuari, a former rebel leader appointed by the Philippines government to negotiate with the guerrillas.

He said two hostages had been wounded during the battle, on the southern island of Jolo, but were still alive.Amid the conflicting accounts, concerns about the welfare of the group - 10 Malaysians, one Filipina, three Germans, two French, two Finns, two South Africans and one Lebanese - increased after the rebels abandoned their jungle camp.

Earlier, the kidnappers had threatened to behead two of their captives unless military forces who had laid siege to their camp withdrew. Last night troops searched the bamboo hut where the group had been held, but found no bodies or traces of blood.

Foreign diplomats in the Philippines are standing impotently by, anxiously awaiting news of their nationals. The French and German governments yesterday repeated a plea to the Filipino authorities to avoid any hasty action. Finland sent an envoy to Manila in the hope that he might be able to help to negotiate a peaceful conclusion to the crisis.

The 21 tourists and resort workers kidnapped from the island of Sipadan, a world-renowned dive site in the Malaysian state of Sabah, appeared gaunt and demoralised in television footage released after Monday's visit to the Jolo camp by a doctor and journalists.

In a day of escalating rebel activity across the southern Philippines, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front - a larger group also fighting for independence for the mainly Muslim south - took 100 people hostage on the island of Mindanao. The civilians were taken captive after guerrillas launched a grenade attack on the airport at Cotabato, 120 miles north of the mainly Christian port city of General Santos, and then seized people out of vehicles on a nearby highway.

The MILF is also thought to be behind four bomb blasts that rocked General Santos, killing at least four people and injuring dozens of others.

The violence wracking the southern Philippines is the worst since 1996. The MILF suspended peace talks last Sunday, claiming government troops had broken a ceasefire.

There are now three hostage crises being played out in the area: on Jolo, Mindanao and Basilan. But the guerrillas on Basilan indicated yesterday they might be willing to hand over the rest of their hostages to concentrate on the Jolo situation.