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Hostages in Philippines best shot: help from Libya

Release negotiations continued yesterday with Muslim rebel kidnappers in the south.

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They have made kidnapping a cottage industry.

The Muslim group Abu Sayyaf is in negotiations to release nine hostages whom they have held for four months in Jolo, a rugged island in the southern Philippines.

Three French journalists have been awaiting release since July, and a dozen Filipino Christian evangelists who went to visit the captives are part of the talks. Since the Easter capture of 21 tourists and workers from a Malaysian resort, other reporters also have been part of the rebels' trade in hostages.

In this confusing revolving door of people and events, one thing is clear: A lot of money has been paid.

The evidence is in Jolo itself. Wads of crisp, new 1,000-peso notes (worth $22 each) seem to be the smallest denomination in the Jolo market. Gun shop owners as far as Zamboanga City - some 100 miles and several tiny islands northeast of Jolo - were interviewed on television, saying there has been a heavy demand for weapons in recent weeks.

Presidential spokesman Ricardo Puno last week facetiously said that Jolo's "gross national product has gone up." A total of $5.5 million had been paid, according to Philippine armed forces chief Gen. Angelo Reyes, in a briefing to the Cabinet last month.

Today, even more money - and reputations - are at stake. While refusing to call it ransom, Libya has asked for more time to raise $12 million to pay the kidnappers for the 12 remaining Western hostages, and a reported $25 million in development aid has already been promised by Libya to the impoverished Muslim area.

Libya became a broker involved in the high-stakes diplomacy when it secured the endorsement of France, Germany, Finland, and South Africa to help end its international isolation in return for assistance in securing the release of their nationals. The $12 million was reportedly an expanded demand by the Abu Sayyaf after an agreement to hand over the hostages to Libyan envoy Rajab Azzarouq collapsed Saturday. The Abu Sayyaf balked at Manila's insistence that the hostages be released together, preferring to release them in batches, to allow them time to escape an expected military onslaught.


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