Western hostages' plea: We can't take any more

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The Independent Online

The 21 hostages kidnapped from a Malaysian diving resort by Islamic rebels last week are increasingly desperate and starting to succumb to illness amid worsening conditions, it emerged yesterday.

Reporters who accompanied a doctor to see the captives, who are being kept in a bamboo hut at the Abu Sayyaf stronghold on Jolo island in the Philippines, told how they pleaded for their freedom and urged the Philippines authorities to speed up negotiations for their release. They were all filthy and suffering from a lack of sanitation. Some had cuts on their feet from walking barefoot in the jungle, while a German woman was said to have high blood pressure and palpitations.

Marie Michel, a Lebanese, said: "Please speed up the negotiations ... We are not used to the conditions. We cannot take it anymore."

The hostages were kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf group from the Sipadan island resort in eastern Malaysia on 23 April. They include 10 Malaysians, three Germans, two French nationals, two South Africans, two Finns, one Lebanese and a Filipina. They were brought by boat to Jolo and have been kept in the hut since. Their diet appears to be mainly rice and rainwater, although some medicine and food were taken in by the doctor and journalists yesterday.

In the hut two hostages, German Werner Gunter Kort and South African Carel Strydom, were playing chess with a set provided by the kidnappers. The others sat listlessly on the floor, waiting for their afternoon meal. Mr Kort said: "They are treating us absolutely correctly. There is no question of being terrorised or anything like that. We arebeing treated correctly, but conditions here are very poor and are deteriorating from day to day."

He urged the Philippines military not to attempt a rescue, saying it would have "no chance at all. Bring about a peaceful solution ... Do it quickly," said Mr Kort, whose wife, Renate Juta, was sobbing. Other hostages said they were at the end of their tether. One said: "Every time a plane passes overhead, we get so frightened. We think our lives are in danger." Ken Fong Yin Ken, a Malaysian diving instructor on the staff at Sipadan, said: "We were told we were in the Philippines only a day and a half after we arrived."

Ms Michel said she "will never go to another Asian place, starting from now. It's getting very, very hard; nothing happens, they don't want to take any decisions. We don't have enough food, we don't have anything to drink, we don't have anything, but I want to tell my parents in Lebanon that I am okay."

Most of the hostages exuded a resigned calm and said they were coping. Monique Strydom, wife of Carel, said: "I'm feeling okay. I'm losing weight. It's not as bad as it looks. I think they [the guerrillas] are doing the best they can under the circumstances." Carel said he wanted his family to know they were basically all right but getting weaker. "It's very hot and treatment is not very good. In terms of food, it's very basic and therefore I think we're getting a little bit weaker as time goes by."

The kidnappers have made no demands except to ask that a United Nations representative be sent to them for talks. They have not threatened the hostages directly. Authorities said army units were within "talking distance"of the rebels and there were some reports of sporadic gunfire.

In a separate development, Philippine troops scoured a maze of Second World War tunnels on the southern island of Basilan in search of 27 people, mostly children, held by Abu Sayyaf guerrillas for 40 days.

The military have linked Abu Sayyaf to many previous kidnappings but it is these twin abductions that have given them their widest media exposure.

A military spokesman said the troops searching the tunnels, built by occupying Japanese forces, had reported hearing "voices of children".

The soldiers launched their search after taking control of the Basilan hideout on Sunday in fierce hand-to-hand battles. At least 10 soldiers and about 50 rebels were killed, local officials said.

The search was being conducted with extreme caution, because of the likelihood that the rebels were also hidden in the tunnels and would fight to the finish, the officials said.