Muslim rebels release all remaining hostages in exchange for safe passage

Wednesday, November 28th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AP) _ Eighty-nine people held hostage for 36 hours by rebels loyal to a renegade Muslim leader were freed Wednesday after a dramatic standoff with armed soldiers.

In exchange for freeing the captives, the rebels were allowed to keep their weapons, move to another guerrilla camp 40 miles away and _ at least temporarily _ avoid prosecution.

``As of this time, we will not file criminal charges,'' military spokesman Brig. Gen. Edilberto Adan said. ``It's up to the police really.''

The bedraggled hostages _ 55 men, 25 woman and nine children _ emerged from the sprawling government complex, some barefoot and most still in the pajamas they were wearing when they were seized.

``We're OK, we're OK,'' one hostage, who would not give his name, told his sister on a borrowed cell phone. ``We are happy we are free.''

Julhambri Misuari, a leader of a faction of the separatist Moro National Liberation Front, said: ``Our agreement is that we will not be pursued and we will commit no trouble.''

Misuari is the nephew of Nur Misuari, the southern governor who was arrested Saturday in Malaysian waters as he tried to flee a manhunt by thousands of soldiers. Misuari, who lost the MNLF leadership earlier this year and was about to lose the governor's post, has been accused of fomenting an attack last week on an army base in order to disrupt elections for his successor.

Malaysian authorities holding Misuari also were investigating whether he is connected to the Abu Sayyaf, another Islamic rebel group linked to the al-Qaida terrorist group. Inspector-General Norian Mai said police would question Misuari about the abduction of three Malaysians in September 2000 by the Abu Sayyaf.

Despite intense fighting Tuesday _ 25 rebels, a soldier and a civilian reportedly died _ the government claimed victory in freeing the hostages without further casualties and rooting out the rebels. They had turned the sprawling Cabatangan government compound on the edge of Zamboanga into a heavily fortified base.

``Thank God it's finished,'' Mayor Maria Clara Lobregat told ABS-CBN television. ``The Cabatangan complex is now in the hands of the military.''

Lt. Gen. Roy Cimatu, head of the military's Southern Command, claimed the rebels would be disarmed later.

Initially, the rebels had taken 118 hostages. They freed eight hostages during the march, during which the captives were roped together as human shields, then 21 more just after midnight following negotiations by government officials.

Under the deal, guerrillas still holed up in the 150-acre government complex were transported to join those holding the hostages in several houses. Ten rebels captured in Tuesday's fighting also were released.

Trucks were brought in to transport the 250 heavily armed rebels to a guerrilla base at the small coastal village of Taguite, escorted by police and soldiers.

They left behind the hostages. An air force bus was brought in to take away the dazed captives. One elderly woman was carried out on a stretcher.

The rebels belong to a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front, which fought the government until a peace deal was struck five years ago.

The poor southern Philippines is home to a 5 million-strong Muslim minority and has repeatedly been the site of bloody conflict for decades. The country is predominantly Roman Catholic.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said she has ordered officials to speed up development in the impoverished and violent south.

``We have to make sure that it won't happen again,'' she told reporters Wednesday.