Communication and transport links were severed with the southern Philippine island of Jolo on Saturday as the military launched a rescue mission for 22 hostages held by Muslim rebels, eyewitnesses and military sources said.
Rashdi Abubakar, mayor of Jolo town, was quoted in news reports as saying hundreds of civilians had poured into the town hall, seeking refuge from the attacks.
Telephone links to the island of Jolo were shut down and ferries, which are the main transport link to the island, suspended their services, effectively trapping residents while keeping outsiders from finding out what was taking place.
The cut in transport and communication links came as the military launched attacks on the Muslim Abu Sayyaf group with F-5 jets, OV-10 airplanes and MG-520 helicopters dispatched from the nearby city of Zamboanga to blast the rebel positions.
Abubakar said the situation in Jolo town itself was still peaceful but that he could not say what was happening outside the town where the Abu Sayyaf are based.
An Abu Sayyaf spokesman had said previously the rebel force, estimated to number about 4,000, would launch attacks on civilians in Jolo town and the southern city of Zamboanga if any rescue attempt was made for the hostages.
Even before the attack began, residents from rural areas had been pouring into Jolo town in anticipation of an offensive against Abu Sayyaf strongholds in rural towns outside the capital.
Troops had been massing in Jolo for the past week with about 30 armoured personnel carriers and 50 trucks involved in the build-up.
There was still no word on the fate of the hostages, particularly the two French TV journalists who were expected to be released this weekend. Government negotiators had been in contact with Galib Andang, the Abu Sayyaf leader better known as Commander Robot, on Friday evening by satellite telephone, but there was no word from him after the attack began.
The release of the Frenchmen had been delayed by squabbles within the Abu Sayyaf over the unequal share of ransom received for other hostages released earlier.
One faction was reportedly laying ambushes for Andang's group, preventing the release of the Frenchmen.
Government negotiator Farouk Hussein said he was optimistic the hostages were still safe despite earlier threats by some Abu Sayyaf members to kill some captives if a rescue attempt was launched.
Aside from the Frenchmen, the rebels are also holding three Malaysians, an American tourist and 16 Filipinos.
The crisis began on April 23 when the Abu Sayyaf seized 21 foreign and local hostages from a Malaysian resort and took them to Jolo.
They freed some of their hostages, reportedly after large ransom payments were made, but also continued seizing more captives.
Previously, the government had pulled back security forces from around Abu Sayyaf hideouts due to pressure from European governments who feared their nationals might be harmed -- JOLO, Philippines (AFP)
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