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The BBC's John McLean
"The government has said there will be no negotiations"
 real 56k

Saturday, 2 June, 2001, 08:02 GMT 09:02 UK
Philippines hostage crisis deepens
Philippines soldiers take cover in Lamitan
Government troops are attacking the hostage takers

Fierce fighting is reported from a southern Philippine town where troops are trying to flush out a group of Muslim rebels who have taken a number of people hostage.

The Abu Sayyaf rebels say they are holding 200 people captive in a church and hospital in the town of Lamitan, about 900 km (550 miles) south of Manila.

But the authorities say only about 20 people have been seized.

Troops have surrounded the area, and are calling on the rebels to surrender.

If you do not stop the military action, we will execute the hostages

Abu Sayyaf rebel spokesman
The stand-off developed as government troops continued their offensive to secure the release of 20 people seized by the rebels a week ago.

Four of them - all Filipinos - escaped early on Saturday. Three Americans are among the remaining hostages.

The government says six soldiers have died and 41 have been wounded in the military operations so far. There is no word on the rebel losses.

More hostages

The latest hostages were taken as the Philippine army managed to track down the suspected kidnappers on the southern island of Basilan, and went on the offensive.

Philippines troops
More troops have been heading to the front lines
Witnesses in Lamitan quoted by the Associated Press news agency said helicopters and infantry units poured rockets and machine gun fire into the hospital and church compound.

The troops were reportedly coming under fire from rooftop snipers.

Officials said about 40 Abu Sayyaf rebels were holding some patients and doctors in the hospital along with at least some of the 20 hostages they seized six days ago at a beach resort.

The condition of the hostages was not clear.

Soldiers backed by helicopter gunships have been fighting in a rugged jungle with an estimated 100-strong contingent of rebels in a bid to free the hostages.

'Suicide squad'

"We are part of an Abu Sayyaf suicide squad... we have 200 more hostages. If you do not stop the military action, we will execute the hostages," said Abu Sayyaf spokesman, Abu Sulaiman.

About 40 to 60 Abu Sayyaf extremists invaded the town and have been waging a fierce street battle against troops, witnesses said.

Lamitan is the largest town on Basilan after the local capital Isabela. It lies slightly inland on the northern coast of Basilan but is connected to the sea by an estuary.

"They attacked Lamitan town at 0400 (2000 GMT on Friday) when we were guarding the school," said Esmeraldo Supil, a militiaman who was shot in the leg and was being treated in a hospital in Isabela.

Lamitan Mayor Inocente Ramos told Radio Mindanao Network that "there is heavy fighting and many killed. There are big explosions."

Radio Mindanao Network spoke to an unidentified town councillor who said at least one Abu Sayyaf commander had been killed.

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See also:

01 Jun 01 | Asia-Pacific
Philippine troops battle kidnappers
31 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Philippine military pursues kidnappers
29 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Philippine rebels threaten hostages
28 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Assault ordered on kidnappers
27 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Philippines hostage search begins
30 Dec 00 | Asia-Pacific
Who are the Abu Sayyaf?
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