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Rebels decline to free hostages

By Amit Baruah

SINGAPORE, AUG. 19. In what has become a ping-pong game of hope and despair, the expected release of at least a dozen Western hostages held by the extremist Abu Sayyaf group in the southern Philippines has, once again, failed to materialise.

Despite the involvement of a Libyan intermediary and the reported payment of a heavy amount of ransom, the talks for the release, which lasted over six hours today, fell through.

``We will have to re-negotiate,'' the Libyan go- between, Mr. Rajab Azzarouq, said in Jolo island in the southern Philippines.

At least five ambassadors had gathered in the area to secure the release of their nationals. Now, however, the mood has turned sombre with the latest developments.

Apparently, the hitch in the release of the hostages related to freeing all the captives in one go. The ``all or nothing'' position taken by the negotiating team is said to have caused the problem, reports from Jolo stated.

Two Germans, two Finns, two South Africans and seven French nationals, including three journalists, are being held hostage by the Abu Sayyaf. There are also reports that the ransom money to secure the release of the hostages has been paid by the Libyans, who have been contacted by the French Government to act as `honest broker''.

In the past, there have been problems in the ransom money actually reaching the Abu Sayyaf. Not all the money to be ``disbursed'' has reached the extremist outfit.

It has been suggested that the French have promised Libya that they would speak on behalf of Tripoli at the international level if this intervention works out well.

``Our motive here is humanitarian... What we are doing is to show the world that Libya is a peace-loving nation and (Col. Muammar) Gaddafi is a leader for peace - not like they are projected by the international media. We are only helping in the release of the hostages... we have no other motivation,'' Mr. Salem Adam, the Libyan ambassador to the Philippines, was quoted as saying.

In the meantime, no further information was available about the fate of four other hostages reportedly freed by the Abu Sayyaf on Friday. The three Malaysians and one Filipino had been ``handed over'' to an emissary, but could not make their way back from rebel-held territory.

Of the four persons said to have been freed, one is a forest ranger in Malaysia while the rest were workers in the diving resort of Sipadan, from where they were kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf on April 23.

It is also evident that the negotiators are dealing with an experienced bunch of guerillas, who are well-versed in the art of negotiating and raising ransom money.

In fact, several mediapersons who went to Jolo after the kidnapping of television journalists covering the kidnapping story have said that they too were being ``surveyed'' as possible targets by Abu Sayyaf sympathisers.

While it is possible that the present hostage crisis might come to an end, there is little doubt that such events may take place again given the handsome profits that it is bringing the kidnappers.

Also, it is clear that the Governments involved are not averse to making ``quiet'' ransom payments to the Abu Sayyaf to secure the release of their nationals.

Ironically enough, that hasn't proved to be enough to ensure that the one-time tourists are reunited with their families.

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