Filipino Muslim rebels, who are holding 21 people abducted from a Malaysian resort 10 days ago, yesterday claimed that they were about to begin beheading their captives.
Soon after this threat, and 300m away from where the hostages are being held, fighting between the rebels and Philippine troops left one soldier dead and an undetermined number of casualties among the rebels. The clashes were continuing late last night.
A supposed leader of the Islamic extremist group Abu Sayyaf, who identified himself by the nom de guerre of "Abu Escobar", had telephoned a local radio station to say that beheadings would begin shortly if the army units did not retreat.
The soldiers were in positions close to the rebel camp where the captives, who include 10 tourists, have been confined to a crowded bamboo hut, since their abduction from a Malaysian diving resort on 23 April. If the troops were not pulled back, Abu Escobar said there would be: "Maybe two heads for tomorrow."
Fighting erupted soon afterwards between the rebels and Philippine troops, 2,000 of whom are encircling the hideout in rugged terrain on the southern island of Jolo.
The military had no intention of moving back, according to Nur Missuari, the government's chief negotiator, who is himself a former Muslim rebel leader. Mr Missuari's negotiations with the Abu Sayyaf have achieved very limited progress so far.
Murder has been threatened before in this hostage drama. A second purported leader of the kidnappers, Galib Andang - alias "Commander Robot" - warned last Friday that beheadings would begin if Mr Missuari was not replaced as negotiator. The authorities then rejected that demand. The new threat also came as the kidnapped tourists, in letters to their governments, pleaded against any resort to force.
Werner Kort, one of the three German hostages, was quoted as saying: "We are risking our lives here, and if the Philippine government should try to march in and find a military solution, there will be bloodshed, nothing else."
The mother of a South African hostage yesterday made a personal plea to the captors. Monica Aggenbag said: "Look after our children. Give them food. Give them medicine and please release them." Mrs Aggenbag's 36-year-old daughter Monique Strydom and her son-in-law Carel are among the hostages.
Mrs Aggenbag had received a note from Monique and Carel yesterday. It had been smuggled out by a photographer who was allowed into the rebel base. Monique Strydom had written: "We love you ... All is OK. We need food, water and clean clothes. We are losing weight and miss you all."
Concerned Western governments reportedly cautioned Manila against any hasty action. The French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin pleaded with the rebels to "contact the Foreign Ministry directly, or me, if needed."Two French tourists are among the hostages.
A second Abu Sayyaf hostage drama affords ample reason for scepticism about the ability of the military to bring the crisis to an end. On Basilan island, 50 miles to the north of Jolo, the Philippine army has captured the extremists' main camp.
The military admitted yesterday that the Abu Sayyaf leadership had seemingly melted away into the jungle. With them disappeared 27 Filipino hostages, many of them schoolchildren, who have now been held for six weeks. The military strike on Basilan had been launched after the Abu Sayyaf announced the beheading of two male hostages.Reuse content