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Friday, 12 April, 2002, 08:44 GMT 09:44 UK
'Negotiations for US hostages'
Martin and Gracia Burnham
The Burnhams were shown on Philippine TV last month
Negotiations are under way for the release of two American hostages who have been held in the southern Philippines for nearly a year, according to US officials.

Maybe the money went to the wrong people

Basilan official
An official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed US news reports that Washington had helped to arrange an abortive payment to the Abu Sayyaf rebels late last month, and said activity to free the couple was continuing.

Provincial officials on Basilan island, where Martin and Gracia Burnham have been held since 27 May last year, confirmed the ransom reports, but said they did not know why the couple had not been released.

Teaching a Philippine soldier firing technique in Lamitan
US troops are training the Philippines army
But the Philippine Government denied a ransom had been paid, and US State Department spokeswoman Eliza Koch would only say that "the United States continues to work closely with the government of the Philippines in its effort to secure the safe release of the hostages".

A Washington official told news agencies that a ransom of $300,000 was handed over a few weeks ago to an intermediary of the Abu Sayyaf.

"Maybe the money went to the wrong people," said one official in Basilan. "Or the Abu Sayyaf will not release them until some more money comes in."

According to local media reports, the Abu Sayyaf has been demanding $2m for the Burnhams.

'Delicate stage'

The negotiations were being conducted by a group known to the rebels and that the talks were at a delicate stage, the US officials said, adding that "there has been some progress and activity as recently as today (Thursday)".

The Burnhams, along with a Filipino nurse, Ediborah Yap, are being held somewhere in the Basilan jungle.

The American couple are the remaining hostages of a group of 20 who were abducted from the luxury Dos Palmos resort last year.

More than 650 American troops are in the southern Philippines to help train the local military to crush the Abu Sayyaf, which the US links with the al-Qaeda network blamed for the 11 September attacks on the US.

A US commander, Brigadier Donald Wurster, told Reuters news agency on Friday that the US troops may now stay longer than the planned six months.

The Philippine Government is also considering a US proposal for more American deployments, mostly engineers to help improve the access to Basilan's remote jungle interior, Brigadier Wurster said.

The Abu Sayyaf are nominally fighting for a Muslim state, although correspondents say they are little more than a rag-tag group of bandits engaging in hostage-taking for money.

See also:

25 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
Philippines rejects rebel deal
19 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
Eyewitness: Philippines' lawless island
07 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
US hostages shown on Philippines TV
06 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
Philippines mayor takes on rebels
19 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
Philippine TV shows beheading video
02 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
US military faces Philippines challenge
17 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
US troops begin Philippine exercises
06 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
Guide to Philippines conflict
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