Hostages in Philippines best shot: help from Libya

Release negotiations continued yesterday with Muslim rebel kidnappers in the south.

They have made kidnapping a cottage industry.

The Muslim group Abu Sayyaf is in negotiations to release nine hostages whom they have held for four months in Jolo, a rugged island in the southern Philippines.

Three French journalists have been awaiting release since July, and a dozen Filipino Christian evangelists who went to visit the captives are part of the talks. Since the Easter capture of 21 tourists and workers from a Malaysian resort, other reporters also have been part of the rebels' trade in hostages.

In this confusing revolving door of people and events, one thing is clear: A lot of money has been paid.

The evidence is in Jolo itself. Wads of crisp, new 1,000-peso notes (worth $22 each) seem to be the smallest denomination in the Jolo market. Gun shop owners as far as Zamboanga City - some 100 miles and several tiny islands northeast of Jolo - were interviewed on television, saying there has been a heavy demand for weapons in recent weeks.

Presidential spokesman Ricardo Puno last week facetiously said that Jolo's "gross national product has gone up." A total of $5.5 million had been paid, according to Philippine armed forces chief Gen. Angelo Reyes, in a briefing to the Cabinet last month.

Today, even more money - and reputations - are at stake. While refusing to call it ransom, Libya has asked for more time to raise $12 million to pay the kidnappers for the 12 remaining Western hostages, and a reported $25 million in development aid has already been promised by Libya to the impoverished Muslim area.

Libya became a broker involved in the high-stakes diplomacy when it secured the endorsement of France, Germany, Finland, and South Africa to help end its international isolation in return for assistance in securing the release of their nationals. The $12 million was reportedly an expanded demand by the Abu Sayyaf after an agreement to hand over the hostages to Libyan envoy Rajab Azzarouq collapsed Saturday. The Abu Sayyaf balked at Manila's insistence that the hostages be released together, preferring to release them in batches, to allow them time to escape an expected military onslaught.

The Abu Sayyaf is reportedly on an arms-buying spree to prepare for an Army crackdown. Its ranks have swollen, say police sources, from a ragtag band of 100 to more than 2,000 men. A Filipino journalist who visited the Abu Sayyaf camp last week says he saw the bandit leader "Commander Robot" test-firing a batch of gleaming new Uzi sub-machine guns. Police also say the Abu Sayyaf bought a new speedboat and 10 motorcycles.

The Philippine military had little capability to mount a rescue of the hostages in Jolo, populated by a war-like group that spearheaded a secessionist war in the 1970s to carve out a Muslim homeland. After the war petered out, the rebels turned to banditry to survive. Some evolved into the Abu Sayyaf.

When the Philippine government showed its impotence in dealing with the hostage crisis, other governments whose nationals were involved got desperate. Malaysia, after hinting it would pay ransom - ("Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary solutions," said Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad) - resorted to other channels. It persuaded Filipino businessmen with strong ties to the Muslim groups to help out. Last Sunday, the last three of the nine Malaysian hostages finally walked to freedom.

The Philippine government has not admitted it paid $1 million ransom for the July 18 release of an ailing German housewife, whose husband and son remain captives. With no other Westerners released since then, the European governments approached Libya for help.

From the beginning, Libya played a facilitator's role through the Qaddafi International Association for Charitable Organizations, headed by strongman Col. Muammar Qaddafi's son Seif el-Islam. The foundation has strong links to the Filipino Muslims, and Mr. Azzarouq helped establish contact between the Philippine government and the Abu Sayyaf.

The biggest loser in this crisis is the Philippine government, whose dignity is in the tatters. From the start, it displayed little control over the crisis. Now the initiative is in the hands of the Libyans.

Spokesman Puno told the press Tuesday the government's key negotiator, Robert Aventajado, has been given "a certain amount of flexibility to make decisions on the ground." The remaining hostages are now likely to be released in batches.

The winners are the bandits and Libya. The United Nations only recently lifted its sanctions on Libya, ending years of isolation and ostracism by the West.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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