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'Hostages will be free within 24 hours'


Manila - The Philippines government said on Thursday that it expected six Europeans and a Filipino held hostage for months by Muslim rebels in the south to be released within the next 24 hours.

"It's all systems go for tomorrow," its chief hostage negotiator, Robert Aventajado, said.

He said he was scheduled to fly to the southern island of Jolo, where the Abu Sayyaf rebels are holding the hostages, early on Friday morning.

In the past, hostages have been released after Aventajado's emissaries go to rebel hideouts in the interior of the island and bring back the captives, which usually takes about four to six hours.

But others on the panel said they were worrying about possible last-minute hitches, especially since these were the last of a batch of 24 hostages taken by the rebels.

"We are trying for all, but perhaps they will only release four (of the hostages)," said one source close to the negotiating panel.

"This is exactly a situation where you hope for the best and expect the worst," said another official on the panel. "Anything can happen at this point. This is crunch time."

The guerrillas have missed many previous deadlines and have said in the past that they were worried about a military assault once all the hostages were freed.

Aventajado has however said all these problems have been solved in telephone conversations with rebel chief Galib Andang.

Freed hostages will be flown from Jolo to the nearby city of Zamboanga and then to the central Philippine city of Cebu, Aventajado said. After a brief rest, they will be taken by chartered jet to Tripoli, Libya, where they will be formally handed over to their governments.

Libya has mounted a major initiative to resolve the hostage crisis, hoping the move will raise its international profile after years of isolation following the 1988 bombing of a US airliner over the Scottish village of Lockerbie.

The seven hostages include a Filipino resort worker and four Europeans - two Finns, a German and a Frenchman - who were holidaying on the Malaysian diving spot of Sipadan when they were kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf on April 23.

The other two are French television journalists abducted on Jolo, 960km south of Manila, in July while they were covering the hostage crisis.

At least 16 others kidnapped on Sipadan and a third member of the French television crew have been released.

Officials say ransoms amounting to millions of dollars have been paid.

A separate faction of the rebels is holding an American kidnapped last week and parallel negotiations are going on for his release. The United States has however said it would not pay ransom or release prisoners for his freedom.

The rebels had demanded three Muslim militants jailed in the United States for the 1993 bombing of New York's World Trade Center be freed in exchange for Jeffrey Schilling.

Negotiators said they had heard Schilling was being held in a jungle hut in the interior of Jolo and that his hands had been bound with twine because he had hit out at his abductors.

But chief government spokesperson Ricardo Puno said: "That is all unconfirmed news. I have heard that he is being allowed to exercise daily. But the main thing he is not being treated roughly."

Vice-Governor Munib Estino, a senior official based on Jolo, has been designated as the government negotiator for Schilling and has said he expected the American to be released within 10 days.

But Puno said he did not know the basis for Estino's optimism. - Reuters


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