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The BBC's John McLean in Manila
"The government says no ransom will be paid"
 real 28k

Thursday, 27 April, 2000, 17:28 GMT 18:28 UK
Hostages 'safe' in Philippines
Soldiers
Philippine soldiers in Basilan, where gunmen are hiding
Philippines authorities have made direct contact with the armed kidnappers who seized 21 hostages from a Malaysian island five days ago and have confirmed they are safe and well.

The two officials - emissaries of chief negotiator in the crisis Nur Misuari - said they had seen most of the hostages, currently being held on Jolo island in southern Philippines.


It will take a lot of persuasion ... that's why I am not promising a miracle.

Chief negotiator Nur Misuari

"Everyone is alive and kicking," said Mr Misuari, a regional governor of an autonomous Muslim region in southern Philippines.

Mr Misuari - a former rebel chief himself with battle scars from years of fighting - warned securing the hostages release would not be that easy.

Nur Misuari
Governor Nur Misuari believes he can secure the release of the hostages

He predicted hard bargaining, saying the gunmen would hold on to their captives "tooth and nail".

"It will take a lot of persuasion...that's why I am not promising a miracle," he said.

"I intend to fall on my old repertoire of tactics and strategy."

Mr Misuari is currently in Zamboanga, a town on the southern island of Mindanao, and is expected to meet the gunmen or their representatives on Friday.

He vowed to send a strong message to the gunmen and said he would not tolerate "hanky-panky business".

Army prepared

Meanwhile, the Philippine military was preparing for a possible rescue operation to the gunmen's camp in Jolo with up to 1,000 troops deployed in nearby areas.

The military has told the kidnappers that they have nowhere to escape.

But acting armed forces chief General Jose Calimlim said that a rescue operation would not be attempted if it posed a risk to the hostages.

'No ransom'

Mr Misuari said it was the Philippine government policy not to pay ransom money.

map

Earlier reports said the kidnappers were demanding a $2.4m ransom for the hostages' release.

He said the kidnappers had probably picked tourists from the island of Sipadan, which lies in the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo island, because they were unable to find wealthy hostages in the southern Philippines.

"The economy is not that good," he said. "The businessmen have fled, so there aren't any suitable victims any more."

Sabah is closer to the southern Philippines than to the Malay peninsula.

Malaysians

Mr Misuari also said that the Malaysians among the hostages would be released soon.

"There was an attempt to have them [the Malaysians] released but the engine of their boat conked out on their way back to Sabah," he said.

Corals and a diver
Sipadan, an island renowned for its corals, is only one hour from southern Philippines

He added that the Malaysian Government was unhappy with the situation. "They want all hostages to be treated fairly and equally."

He said in a radio interview that he was confident of securing the freedom of the remaining three Germans, two French nationals, two South Africans, two Finns, a Lebanese woman and two Filipinos.

Mr Misuari confirmed that some of the gunmen belonged to Abu Sayyaf, a militant Muslim separatist group.

Mr Misuari was himself a long-time activist in the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which dropped its 24-year armed struggle for an independent Muslim state in the southern region of Mindanao when it signed a peace treaty with the government in September 1996.

Mr Misuari said one senior MNLF aide who was set to talk with the rebels was the uncle of the man believed to be in charge of the kidnappers - Galib Andang, alias "Commander Robot".

Malaysia says it is now tightening security in the coastal region where the hostages were taken.

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See also:

26 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Philippines kidnappers identified
26 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Dangerous waters
25 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Malaysian kidnap 'puzzle'
23 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Philippine army 'to crush' rebels
19 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
"Sword of God" at war
19 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Muslim rebels behead two hostages
23 Feb 99 | Asia-Pacific
Philippine dream of Islamic state
24 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Gunmen seize tourists in Malaysia
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