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Wednesday, 28 November, 2001, 05:50 GMT
Philippine rebels free hostages
Hostages tied to each other
The rebels had threatened to kill the hostages
Muslim rebels in the southern Philippine city of Zamboanga have freed their hostages in exchange for safe passage from the city.

Government negotiator Abraham Iribani said that the rebels, who are surrounded in the city, would be permitted to leave the city for the neighbouring province of Zamboanga del Sur, as agreed during negotiations.

Earlier on Wednesday morning 23 hostages were released in two batches by the rebels, who are loyal to the outgoing renegade governor Nur Misuari.

It is still unclear whether the rebels are prepared to give up their arms, which the military has demanded, according to Reuters news reports.

Rebel leader Julhambri Misuari, nephew of the governor, told local radio station DZMM that it was still an ongoing discussion.

"That will be a subject of debate," he said.

"The important thing is the hostages will be released."

However the BBC's Jonathan Head said that the rebels would be "very reluctant" to give up their guns.

Violent uprising

Zamboanga resident
Local residents fled the gunfire when Mr Misuari's supporters took hostages from local communities
The rebels had earlier threatened to kill their captives, unless government forces gave them safe passage.

The hostages were taken by followers of outgoing renegade governor Nur Misuari as they fled from military air strikes against their base in a government complex.

Mr Misuari began an uprising last week, ahead of a vote to elect a new governor for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

More than 100 people died in attacks on army outposts by rebels supporting Mr Misuari on the island of Jolo.

Despite the violence, voting went ahead on Monday amid tight security, and there were few reports of trouble.

But on Tuesday morning, air force bombers and helicopters targeted the rebels - said to number about 100 - who had refused leave the office complex in a Zamboanga suburb.


An army spokesman said 25 insurgents, a soldier, and at least one civilian were killed in the air strikes.

Human shields

As they tried to escape the bombardment, rebels snatched local residents from their homes, tied them up and used them as human shields and marched them through the city.

The rebels then took over a small public hall, from where they have been negotiating with the authorities.

The gunmen belong to the Muslim separatist Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) - led by Mr Misuari until he was dropped by the group's political leadership earlier this year.

The MNLF fought a long secessionist war, spanning three decades, until a peace agreement signed in 1996 set up the ARMM with Mr Misuari as governor.

The BBC's John McLean in Manila says the MNLF is sticking to the peace agreement, and Mr Misuari commands the loyalty of only a small faction.

Our correspondent in Zamboanga says Mr Misuari lost a lot of support due to his poor performance as governor.

Allegations of incompetence and corruption led the Philippines government to back alternative candidates within the MNLF.

After the failure of his uprising, Mr Misuari fled to Malaysia, where he was arrested on Saturday.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's John McLean
"The hostages were freed in batches"
See also:

27 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
Philippines rebels threaten 50 hostages
27 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Philippines hostage drama
24 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
Philippines rebel leader arrested
21 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Philippines uprising
21 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
'Over 100' dead in Philippines uprising
27 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
A never ending conflict
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