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MUSLIM rebels free three hostages in Philippines


ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AP) _ Three hostages held by Muslim guerrillas were reunited with their families Saturday after trudging for two days through the jungle following their release.

The Abu Sayyaf rebels are still holding 26 other captives. One of the freed hostages said he recently saw two of the three Americans, but not the one whom the guerrillas claim to have killed.

The freed captives were identified as Francis Ganzon, 50; Kimberly Jao, 13; and Muslim cleric Mohaimin Sahi, whom the military earlier said had been beheaded by the Abu Sayyaf. All three are Filipinos.

``I'm happy I'll be seeing my family again,'' Ganzon told The Associated Press. ``It was a near-death experience. Nightmarish. This has to end.''

Ganzon said he had seen missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham of Wichita, Kan., three days earlier, but not since then because the captives had been split up.

He had no word on Guillermo Sobero of Corona, Calif., whom the Abu Sayyaf claimed Tuesday to have beheaded. No trace of Sobero's body has been found in five days of searching, leading to hope that he might be alive.

In a radio interview, Ganzon said rebel leader Abu Sabaya said he had Sobero killed after a clash with government troops. Sabaya said he was angry because he felt betrayed by government negotiators, according to Ganzon.

``Sabaya said that this was such a joke,'' Ganzon said. ``That night, they said they had cut his head off. But I myself did not see it.''

Jao appeared to be holding back tears as she got off the plane in Manila and embraced relatives. Ganzon smiled broadly and waved to waiting reporters.

There were unconfirmed reports they were released for ransoms paid by their families. Presidential spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao said it was not clear if money had been paid despite the government's official no-ransom policy.

The three walked through the jungle for two days before arriving in Isabela, the capital of Basilan province, at midnight Friday, Tiglao said.

He said they walked to the home of an influential resident, who immediately notified the president. The government dispatched the presidential jet to pick them up.

``They looked well,'' Tiglao said. ``The young girl seemed OK; amazing for such a young girl to have had such an ordeal and still keep her wits.''

Saying Arroyo is ``happy that they have finally escaped the hell that the Abu Sayyaf put them through,'' Tiglao appealed for the rebels to release the rest of their hostages.

``End the suffering you have brought down on innocent, helpless people,'' he said. ``You have only brought death and destruction on the people of Basilan.''

Ganzon and Jao were among 20 people taken hostage on May 27 during a raid on a beach resort across the Sulu Sea. Jao's mother and Ganzon's wife escaped two weeks ago when the rebels occupied a hospital for a day. Local media have reported they may have been allowed to escape to arrange ransoms.

The Abu Sayyaf reportedly made millions of dollars off a similar kidnapping last year from a Malaysian resort and used the money to rearm and resupply.

The release came amid reports that the military was preparing a large-scale assault by 5,000 troops aided by civilian militiamen that the military is arming.

On Saturday, Basilan Gov. Wahab Akbar confirmed reports that Khadaffy Janjalani, an Abu Sayyaf leader, had been killed two weeks ago during a clash with troops. Janjalani reportedly held American Jeffrey Schilling for eight months until he escaped in April.

Akbar said the rebels raided the hospital to seek treatment for Janjalani.

Since the original raid, nine other hostages have escaped and two have been found hacked to death. The Abu Sayyaf took another four hostages in the hospital siege and 15 more in a raid on a plantation Tuesday.

The Abu Sayyaf says it wants a southern Islamic state, but the government calls the rebels mere bandits. Muslims are a minority in the mostly Roman Catholic Philippines, but they form a majority in the southern islands where the Abu Sayyaf operates.

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