Government Sources: Two French Journalists May Be Freed Friday
Two Frenchmen among 22 hostages held at gunpoint by Muslim extremists in the southern Philippines Island of Jolo may be freed on Friday, government sources said Thursday.
"Tomorrow afternoon, the two French journalists might be released," one government intelligence source said, referring to cameraman Jean-Jacques Le Garrec and soundman Roland Madura, held for 77 days by Abu Sayyaf gunmen.
President Joseph Estrada's chief aide, Executive Secretary Ronaldo Zamora, said earlier Thursday that chief hostage negotiator Roberto Aventajado has asked his team to be given until "Friday or Saturday" to convince the gunmen to free the Frenchmen.
"The negotiations are already finished but the release was just deferred because of the fighting among the Abu Sayyaf," one senior diplomatic source said in Manila, referring to a gunbattle among guerrilla factions over the division of ransoms on Saturday, several hours before four European tourists gained their freedom.
Libya brokered their release along with six other Western tourists who walked free last month. All 10 were snatched from the Malaysian resort of Sipadan in April.
If the Frenchmen are freed, it will justify Estrada's decision to hold off attacking the Abu Sayyaf.
Estrada had considered military action earlier this week to resolve the four-month old hostage crisis after the gunmen took three new captives from the Malaysian resort of Pandanan on Sunday.
Aside from the French and Malaysians, one other Abu Sayyaf faction holds American Jeffrey Schilling and Filipino diving instructor Roland Ullah, the only remaining hostage from the Sipadan raid.
The gunmen have freed 20 others, along with several Western and Filipino journalists, reportedly in exchange for millions of dollars in ransom.
All the other hostages are Filipinos.
An aide to Aventajado is to arrive in Jolo on Friday to receive the Frenchmen, said the sources, who asked not to be named.
Aventajado could not be reached for comment Thursday. Aides later told AFP he was expected on the island shortly, but insisted the visit was unrelated to the crisis.
Malaysia on Thursday asked Manila to take steps to effect "the early and safe release" of Mohamed Noor Sulaiman, Joseph Ongkinoh and Kan Wei Chong, Malaysian ambassador Arshad Hussein said.
Asked if Kuala Lumpur would oppose a rescue attempt, Arshad said: "What can we do? It's up to the Philippine government."
Government television said Estrada named provincial governor Abdusakur Tan to negotiate with the Malaysians' kidnappers.
Earlier Thursday the Abu Sayyaf gunmen threatened to go on a killing spree in southern Philippine cities if the military moved against them.
Civilians in the southern city of Zamboanga and the provincial capital of Jolo island were warned to leave town so that "they will not be massacred," if the military attacks the Abu Sayyaf, guerrilla spokesman Abu Sabaya said in a radio broadcast.
Military spokesman Colonel Hilario Atendido downplayed the threat, saying: "They don't have the capability."
Filipino Roman Catholic bishops on Thursday added their voices to growing calls for military action.
"If the Abu Sayyaf does not stop their actions, we cannot blame the government if they pursue military actions," said Bishop Nestor Carino of the Catholic Bishops' Conference -- JOLO, Philippines(AFP)
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