Hostage Crisis

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In the Jungle, the waiting game goes on and on

After nearly a month in the jungle, the 21 foreign hostages held by Abu Sayyaf rebels on Jolo Island were in no mood for further delays. Yet, just as it appeared that Manila had finally set up a framework for talks with the insurgents last week, the government's negotiating team was held up in the capital by bad weather. Then on Thursday, the date set for starting talks, three grenades were lobbed into a crowded Jolo market and another near the police station in nearby Zamboanga City, killing five people and injuring several dozen. Face-to-face negotiations stalled over the weekend and the rebels warned the discussions could drag on for weeks.

We can only press so much, because if they know that we want it done quickly, they might raise what they are asking for, says presidential emissary Robert Aventajado, a member of the government's four-man negotiating team. According to Foreign Secretary Domingo Siazon, rebel leaders originally demanded $1 million for the release of one of the hostages, an ailing German woman. According to Aventajado, Manila is prepared to pay only about $165 per hostage--for food and lodging. Says the presidential emissary: No more, no less--but especially no more because we don't want them to buy more arms with the money, as this could mean more kidnappings.

That stance could cut the negotiations short. The rebels' demands, which government negotiators insist must be written down, are much more elaborate, including the establishment of an independent Muslim state in the southern Philippines and the imposition of Islamic law in the area. Their list reads like an aggrieved political manifesto, accusing Manila of years of abuse and neglect of the country's Muslims, who claim to number 10 million out of a population of 76 million.

For the hostages, the gap between the two sides may mean extended captivity. Ten battalions of army troops surround the rebels' hideout on Jolo, and many voices are urging President Joseph Estrada to take a tougher line. You cannot afford to have several takes here like in the movies, says a high-ranking military official, alluding to Estrada's past career as an actor. In other words, he should start kicking ass. The hostages have appealed to the European Union and to their respective governments to join in the negotiations, and according to journalists who visited the camp last week, their spirits are beginning to flag. Nobody can survive this, said Monique Styrdom, a South African captive.

The urgency of the situation has begun to impress itself upon Estrada, who cut short a visit to China after the grenade attacks. And negotiators sound optimistic. We just have to be patient, Aventajado said just before flying back to Jolo last Thursday. It won't be long before we resolve this problem. The hostages, though, could be forgiven for greeting those words with skepticism.

Reported by Nelly Sindayen/Manila