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Mistaken Philippines patrol may have prevented negotiator-rebel meeting
Emissaries still hope to obtain Philippine hostage release
JOLO, Philippines -- Philippine troops patrolling in the wrong area on Thursday may have prevented a meeting between negotiators and Muslim extremists who have held 21 hostages, snatched from a Malaysian resort, since April 23.
Philippine authorities ordered the military to move farther from the rebel stronghold on Jolo Island.
"That may have sent the wrong signal," said Robert Aventajado, Philippine President Joseph Estrada's special adviser." "We have asked the military to go somewhere else while we are doing the negotiations."
The emissaries, who failed to secure the hostages' release on Wednesday, believed they were nearing a breakthrough in the nearly three-week drama, but were clearly unhappy about the turn of events on Thursday.
"It is a minor incident but of course it will affect the negotiations," said former Libyan ambassador to the Philippines Rajab Azzarouq, one of the negotiators.
A few hours after Thursday's meeting between the rebels and negotiators was canceled, gunfire broke out between the Philippine military and the Abu Sayyaf rebel group that conducted the kidnapping last month.
The gunfire was reported near Patikol, where the hostages had been held until the rebels moved them on Wednesday night. They were said to be about 8 kilometers away when the gunfire erupted. No casualties were reported.
Abu Sayyaf rebels kidnapped the 21 hostages -- including nine Malaysians, three Germans, two French, two South Africans, two Finns, a Lebanese and two Filipinos -- from a Malaysian diving resort.
Abu Sayyaf is the smaller, but more radical, of the two Muslim groups fighting for a separate homeland in the southern Philippines. The group is believed to be holding eight other hostages on nearby Basilan Island.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, accused last week of a series of bombings in the southern Philippines, is the larger Muslim group.
Envoys seek release of ill captive
Negotiators have been especially trying to secure the release of 57-year-old German hostage Renate Wallert, who is suffering from high blood pressure. Wallert reportedly has to be fed intravenously.
Her condition has reportedly deteriorated in the tropical heat. A doctor who examined her last week had appealed for her release. However, the rebels said Wednesday that they needed 24 hours to decide whether to release her.
One rebel leader, meanwhile, said he doubted Wallert was ill, despite her being seen in footage lying semi- conscious in a hammock -- with other hostages holding her head so she could drink water. Officials confirmed she had received medicine and was able to stand.
"Sometimes she cannot talk," rebel leader Abu Escobar told local radio. "But when she hears gunfire, or there are skirmishes, she is the first to run."
Rebels ponder parameters
Aside from discussing Wallert's release, Aventajado said negotiators had talked to the kidnappers about creating trust for negotiations. He said the rebels wanted two to three days to consider their parameters.
"We are trying to convince them that if it is possible, make it faster," Aventajado said. "But we can only press so much because if they feel we are really in a hurry, they might ask for greater demands."
A negotiator said Thursday the rebels were expected to seek reimbursement for the costs of holding the 21 hostages. However, the kidnappers had not suggested a figure for their expenses -- which would include food and security.
The negotiator suggested the rebels might agree to accept between 50,000 pesos to 70,000 pesos (U.S.$1,200 to $1,700) per person. The Philippine government is opposed to paying ransom, but has been known to reimburse kidnappers for "food and lodging."
Azzarouq served as ambassador to the Philippines in the 1990s and, during that time, helped negotiate the freedom of hostages held by rebels. He was on the panel that brokered the 1996 peace pact that ended the 24-year Muslim war in the southern Philippines. However, some Muslim groups did not accept the accord.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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