- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 16, 2000

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has pledged to pay millions of dollars to free nine foreigners held hostage by Muslim rebels for four months but wants them to come to Tripoli on their release.

The release of the nine from remote Jolo island had been promised for today, but "minor hitches" forced a delay until at least tomorrow, Philippine negotiator Roberto Mananquil said yesterday.

A chartered plane from Libya was waiting in Manila to pick up the hostages, who were part of a group of 21 persons kidnapped in April from Malaysia's Sipadan diving resort by Abu Sayyaf rebels.

Planes chartered by Libya were ferrying officials and scores of journalists from Lebanon and South Africa to Tripoli, where the hostages were to be flown after their release to meet with Col. Gadhafi.

Former Libyan Ambassador Abdul Rajab Azzarouq, a member of the Philippine negotiating team, denied reports that as much as $25 million in cash was going to the Abu Sayyaf rebels.

Mr. Azzarouq insisted the money will fund development projects. "We are sticking to our offer of livelihood projects," he said. "We are offering projects that would benefit the community itself."

For years, Libya has mediated between Muslim guerrillas and the Philippine government, and helped build schools and mosques in the impoverished southern Philippines, home to the heavily Roman Catholic country's Muslim minority.

Libya also has been accused of training rebels from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has been fighting for years for an Islamic state in the southern Philippines.

Philippine negotiators have not announced how much Libya is paying for the hostages' release.

Abu Sayyaf has demanded $1 million for each hostage: two South Africans, three French citizens including one with a Lebanese background two Germans and two Finns.

The nine were among 21 persons kidnapped April 23 from the Sipadan diving resort. Their freedom would leave three Malaysians and two Filipinos in captivity from the Sipadan group.

In all, Abu Sayyaf, a group of several hundred heavily armed rebels, is holding 29 hostages, including three French journalists and a dozen Christian evangelists who came to the rebels' camp to pray for the hostages.

So far, about $5.5 million has been paid for the release of six Malaysians and one ailing German woman from among the Sipadan hostages, and a German journalist and two Philippine TV journalists who were kidnapped later, military officials say.

Tharwat Moarbes, mother of Lebanese-French hostage Marie Moarbes, said thoughts of her daughter's expected release kept her awake Monday night.

"I have been waiting for four months to see Marie again. I am very happy that she will be released," she told Lebanon's state-run television just before boarding a plane to Libya.

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