Philippine military attacks Muslim rebels holding 19 hostages

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines - Thousands of Philippine troops pursued fleeing Muslim rebels Saturday and helicopter gunships strafed their hide-outs from the air. The fate of their 19 hostages, including an American, was unclear.

The military imposed a news blackout after the surprise attack aimed at rescuing the hostages held in a remote jungle on Jolo island. Authorities launched the attack before dawn Saturday following nearly five months of negotiations with Abu Sayyaf rebels and the reported payment of more than $15 million in ransom for other captives.

President Joseph Estrada said his patience broke after the rebels, who claim they are fighting for an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines, seized a new group of hostages from Malaysia on Sept. 10.

''We have exhausted all efforts toward a negotiated settlement,'' he said in a nationally televised speech. ''We will not allow kidnappers or other lawless elements to mock our laws or control our lives.''

France, Germany and Malaysia expressed concern about the decision to attack the rebel camps, saying it could endanger the lives of the hostages.

Various Abu Sayyaf factions are holding an American Muslim, two French journalists, three Malaysians, a Filipino captured in April and 12 Filipino Christian evangelists.

A military officer on Jolo said two rebels were confirmed dead and four injured in Saturday's fighting, but there were no reports of military casualties. Five injured civilians were being treated at a Jolo hospital.

Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado said 17 rebels were captured.

The military was checking unconfirmed reports that the American, Jeffrey Schilling of Oakland, Calif., was killed during an escape attempt Friday and that the evangelists were executed by a rebel firing squad after the military attack began, an official said. The military also was trying to verify a report that the two French journalists had escaped, said the official, who spoke on the condition he not be named.

In Oakland, a Schilling family spokeswoman said they had no further information. ''It's very early in the morning there and we are hoping that is why we haven't heard from anyone,'' Kate Campbell said.

''The American embassy has been great in informing us about what is going on. The last we heard is that the military got to the camp and it had been abandoned. That gives us hope that Jeffrey is still alive,'' she said.

The rebels had earlier threatened to attack southern Philippine cities and behead Schilling if troops launched an attack.

Telephone and transportation links to Jolo were cut, isolating panicked villagers who streamed into the island's capital and snapped up goods in crowded grocery stores.

Support for a military assault has soared since the rebels abducted three more people last week from a Malaysian diving resort - despite their earlier pledge not to seize more captives while negotiations were underway.

The kidnapping came just one day after the rebels released four Europeans - the last foreigners from a group of 21 people abducted April 23 from another Malaysian resort.

Estrada, who cut short a visit to the United States to deal with the crisis, said the continuing abductions showed the Abu Sayyaf were ''plain terrorists and bandits.''

The military had prepared for weeks for an assault on the rebel camps. On Friday, Mercado said the armed forces were ''like an arrow drawn against a bow'' waiting for orders to attack.

''Obviously the arrow has been released,'' he said Saturday. ''We hope it can find its target.''

French President Jacques Chirac criticized the assault, saying he was concerned it might put the French journalists in danger.

''The safety of Roland Madura and Jean-Jacques Le Garrec is France's only priority, and we consider the Philippines responsible for this,'' Chirac's spokeswoman, Catherine Colonna, said Saturday.

The French Defense Ministry was in contact with Philippine military leaders, and Defense Minister Alain Richard asked his U.S. counterpart, William Cohen, to convey France's concerns over the safety of the hostages to the Philippine government.

During a visit to Manila on Friday, Cohen had said the United States hoped the hostages could be released peacefully, but that a decision on whether to use force was up to the Philippines.

Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said he was concerned about the safety of the Malaysian hostages, but that ''what the Philippine army does against separatist groups or those out to create chaos in the country is its own responsibility.''

Philippine presidential spokesman Ricardo Puno echoed that sentiment.

''This is a matter that the Philippines has to decide on its own,'' Puno said. ''Because after all, when the French leave, we will be left with the problem here in our country.''

Negotiations for the remaining hostages had been suspended because of rising tensions among Abu Sayyaf factions over the division of ransom money from the release of earlier hostages. Negotiators say more than $15 million in ransom has been paid, about $10 million of it by Libya for 10 Westerners.

Critics had warned that large ransom payments would encourage new waves of kidnappings in the troubled southern Philippines, home of the country's Muslim minority.


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