- The Washington Times - Monday, August 21, 2000

SEMPORNA, Malaysia (AP) Shrugging off the threat of kidnapping, hundreds of athletes began a 12-day wilderness race yesterday near the tropical island where an Islamic rebel group snatched foreign tourists in April.

Organized by the executive producer of the hit CBS show "Survivor," the Eco-Challenge 2000 opened amid the fears of local people that the Philippine rebels, emboldened by massive ransom payments, could return to take new hostages.

But Mark Burnett, the former British paratrooper who founded the Eco-Challenge seven years ago, said organizers had been assured by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed that security would be adequate.

"We've received full support from the Malaysian military and state police, and assurances from the highest level of the government," Mr. Burnett said.

The Eco-Challenge 2000 race involves about 300 athletes and more than 700 support staff and volunteers, plus two dozen camera crews. USA Network, an Eco-Challenge partner, will broadcast four hours of edited footage in April 2001.

For 12 continuous days, the four-person teams one includes three Playboy centerfolds will hike, climb, sail, rappel, cave and even scuba dive to an underwater coral reef checkpoint. Each team paid $12,500 to compete.

The 76 teams made up of triathletes and endurance runners from the United States, New Zealand, Finland and two dozen other countries began the race yesterday by paddling in canoes toward Sipadan Island, where a group of tourists was kidnapped in April. A helicopter circled overhead while policemen armed with M-16 rifles patrolled the shore of Semporna, a coastal town close to Sipadan.

Tiny, coral-fringed Sipadan was regarded as a nirvana by diving aficionados until Abu Sayyaf rebels from the Philippines seized 21 foreign tourists and resort workers at gunpoint and took them by boat to Jolo, a Philippine island an hour away.

The rebels, who seek an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines, later grabbed three French journalists and 12 Philippine Christian evangelists who came to their remote jungle camp. Some hostages have been released for ransom, but the rebels still hold 24 persons.

The Abu Sayyaf had been expected to release the remaining hostages Saturday, but negotiations failed.

Eco-Challenge organizers say they never considered canceling the event, even after learning that the hundreds of islands dotting the vast Sulu and Celebes Seas are a hide-out for pirates and Islamic militants.

What attracted Mr. Burnett to the region for both "Survivor" filmed on Pulau Tiga, another small Malaysian island and the Eco-Challenge was the romance and danger associated with Borneo, the huge island divided between Indonesia and Malaysia that dominates the region.

"Borneo the very name itself is a great brand," Mr. Burnett enthused. "People from all over have now heard of Borneo, a mystical place, with great legends of the world."

The press kit for Eco-Challenge plays this up, saying the race course runs over "ancient headhunting trails."

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