First Free All Hostages, Then We Can Talk, Erap Tells Abu Sayyaf as Military Operations Continue

Article excerpt

President Estrada, responding to pleas from the Abu Sayyaf for a ceasefire, said yesterday that new negotiations can be considered only if they first free all hostages.

"That's the time we can talk," the President said.

Press Secretary Ricardo Puno, Jr. said that the release of the hostages should not be difficult since the Abu Sayyaf can just hand them over to government troops who have saturated the area.

Puno said fighting could be suspended in the areas where the captives would be released.

President Estrada, meanwhile, said that rescue operations for the 19 hostages were proceeding well.

He said the reported sighting of the hostages by the military is an indication that the hostages were still alive.

Fleeing Abu Sayyaf rebels reported to have taken with them the hostages as they were being pursued by military forces across the jungles of Jolo.

As the assault enters its fifth day, the military remains the only source of official information on the progress of the military action taken by the President.

Since the President ordered the military attack early morning of Saturday, government troopers have captured three major Abu Sayyaf strongholds and smaller camps but found no sign of the hostages.

"In the history of kidnappers, when they kill their vicims, they leave their bodies to show what they have done," the President said.

Inasmuch as there has been no report on any bodies, there is reason to believe that the hostages are still alive, the Prseident said.

The Associated Press reported as of press time last night that seven rebels have been killed and 20 arrested in the four days of the military assault while six soldiers have been wounded.

The AP saidall transportation and telephone lines have been cut to stop the rebels from fleeing the island and keep them from using their cellular phones.

Abu Sayyaf elements are reported to be fully equipped with the latest and the most expensive cellular phones.

On the hostages situation, Secretary Puno confirmed reports that some of the captives were sighted in Zamboanga Tuesday.

He said the government remains hopeful but declined to give additional information.

The President enjoys a nationwide support on the military option he has taken against the Abu Sayyaf after months of negotiations.

While the United States and Malaysia have declared that the Philippine government has the prerogative to resort to military action, France has been critical.

The President, however, said that French leaders have "no business interfering in our affairs."

The Publishers Association of the Philippines announced its all-out support for the military operations ordered by the President against the Abu Sayyaf.

The PAPI also said it supported Malacanang's move to temporarily keep out foreign and local media practitioners from Sulu. It supported the freezing of on-the-spot coverage as ordered by the military so that military operations would not be jeopardized.

Schilling seen

ZAMBOANGA (AFP) - An American being held by Muslim kidnappers in the southern Philippines was seen alive Tuesday and some of the other 21 hostages have also been sighted since a military onslaught began, officials said.

"Schilling is safe" as of Tuesday, said one senior aide who asked not to be identified. "He was eyeballed alive."

The official would give no details of the whereabouts of Jeffrey Schilling, 24, and stressed he had not been rescued from his Abu Sayyaf captors, who have split their captives into three or four groups.

Troops mounting the ground and air attack in Jolo island since Saturday have seen some of the captives, presidential spokesman Ricardo Puno said.

"We can't tell you who among them, or how many or where they were seen," he told AFP. "But they are alive. …