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Hostage Freed In Philippines

One of the 21 mostly foreign hostages being held in the Philippines has finally been freed, after two months. The Muslim separatist group Abu Sayyaf announced the release as authorities pointed a blaming finger at that nation's largest Muslim guerilla group for a wave of bombs which killed one person and injured 37 others.

29-year-old Zulkurmain Bin Hashim, a forest ranger from Maylasia, got his first taste of freedom Saturday even though no ransom was paid. That's according to the Philippine government's chief negotiator, Robert Aventajado, who says Abu Sayyaf calls the release "a gesture of goodwill."

Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the group the government is blaming for Saturday's deadly bombs in the Southern Philippines, are both fighting to establish an independent Islamic state.

Saturday's bombs exploded at 6:30 p.m. local time in General Santos, a predominately Christian city of over 600,000 people. Bombs went off at three commercial banks, a shopping mall, a commercial building, and a college. The explosions killed a woman waiting for a ride in front of a bank, and injured 37 other people.

Hostage Monique Strydom
writes a letter as her husband
and fellow hostage, Callie,
looks on inside their hut.

The bombings are the latest in a series of attacks in different parts of the country attributed by the government to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
We are suspecting this is (their) handiwork," regional police chief General Manuel Raval told reporters at a news conference.

The Philippine government is emphasizing that there is no connection between the two events Saturday involving the two Muslim separatist groups.

"These two incidents are not related," said government spokesman Ricardo Puno. "One is welcome, the other is most definitely not."

The government's chief negotiator in the hostage saga, Robert Aventajado, told Reuters that Malaysian forest ranger Zulkarnain Hashim was set free by Abu Sayyaf rebels as a goodwill gesture.

"He is in my custody in Manila, he is in good shape," Aventajado said. Hashim was taken by government emissaries from the southern island of Jolo and brought to Zamboanga, the nearest big city, and then flown to Manila, he said.

Abu Sayyaf is still holding three Germans, two French, two Finns, two South Africans, a Lebanese, eight other Malaysians and two Filipinos they seized April 23 from the Malaysian diving resort of Sipadan. The rebels brought the hostages in April to the southern Philippine island of Jolo, an hour away from the diving resort.

German hostage Renate
Wallert, seen here in
the Abu Sayyaf hideout,
is said to be in poor

Aventajado said no ransom was paid, nor had any other rebel demands been met. He said the signs were favourable for the release of the other Malaysians at least.

Government officials have said the rebels are demanding at least $1 million for each hostage and have other political demands, including an independent homeland and a ban on fishing in the seas of the southern Philippines.

The government has said it will not pay any ransom or give more than limited autonomy to Moslem-majority areas in the south. But privately, many officials have admitted that some ransom may have to be paid.

Presidential Executive Secretary Ronaldo Zamora has said that negotiators would offer the Abu Sayyaf government projects instead of ransom.

The release of the Malaysian was the biggest break so far in the two-month hostage crisis that has brought international attention to the Philippines.

The negotiations appeared to have soured two weeks ago after the rebels separated their Caucasian captives from the Asians because of fears of a military rescue operation.

On Wednesday, Aventajado said he was informed that the rebels have reunited the hostages in one camp in the Talipao area of Jolo.

In previous meetings with negotiators, the rebels have focused on political demands, including a separate Islamic state, protection of traditional fishing grounds from large trawlers - many of which are foreign-owned - and the formation of a commission to examine the problems of Filipino Muslims living in neighboring Malaysia.

Former Libyan ambassador Ashad Abdul Rajab Azzarouq, one of the government negotiators, said the rebels have welcomed an offer from a private Libyan foundation to put up schools, hospitals and work projects in Jolo.

Still, government representatives have said, on condition of anonymity, that at least two of five Abu Sayyaf commanders are interested primarily in a big ransom.

The two leaders, Galib Andang, known as Commander Robot, and Mujib Susukan, control the hostages on Jolo, an impoverished predominantly Muslim island of 500,000 people about 590 miles south of Manila.

Many of the hostages have fallen ill. Doctors have been allowed to visit them periodically with deliveries of food and medicine.

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