- The Washington Times - Monday, August 28, 2000

JOLO, Philippines Five foreign hostages released by Muslim rebels walked to freedom yesterday looking stunned, some in tears and leaving family members still captive in the jungle on a remote Philippine island.

The Abu Sayyaf separatist guerrillas released the four women and one man after Libya agreed to pay $1 million for each, negotiators said. The rebels were still holding seven other Westerners and 12 Filipinos.

Libyan ambassador Saleem Adam dismissed charges that his country was trying to improve its international image by bankrolling the ransom. "This is a humanitarian mission," he said. "It has no other motivation."

Freedom was bittersweet for the former hostages, most of whom wore flip-flops and carried their meager possessions in rice sacks when they stepped off helicopters in the port city of Zamboanga, not far from the island where they were held.

"We're not happy because there are people left behind," said French citizen Marie Moarbes. "It's not finished yet for us."

The others freed were Sonia Wendling of France, South African Monique Strydom, German Werner Wallert, and Maryse Burgot, a French journalist. Ambassadors from their respective countries met them in Zamboanga.

"My son is still there. You don't expect me to be happy," Mr. Wallert said. Mrs. Strydom's husband also remains a hostage.

An envoy said Mr. Wallert and his son, Marc, cried and embraced for a long time before parting, each insisting that the other should go. Finally, the envoy led the father away. Mr. Wallert's wife, Renate, was freed last month.

Mrs. Wendling, rubbing her eyes in apparent disbelief, said she could never forget her four months in captivity. "I don't know how to describe the experience," she said.

The mood was much more upbeat later on a Philippine Air Force cargo plane that ferried the released hostages to the Philippine city of Cebu, where they stayed last night.

They clinked cans of soda and wolfed down cheeseburgers and pizza, their first meal since leaving the rebel camp some six hours earlier. But mostly they talked on and on about their experiences to diplomats and relatives on board the plane.

The former hostages and their ambassadors ignored the plane's uncomfortable seats and its occasional bumps and dips as they celebrated. Miss Marbes clutched a teddy bear given to her by her father as the two talked animatedly for the entire one-hour flight.

The hostages were to be flown today to Tripoli to meet with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Libya has long-standing ties to Muslim rebels in the mostly Catholic Philippines.

For years, Libya has helped mediate between Muslim guerrillas and the Philippine government and helped build schools and mosques in the impoverished south.

But Libya also has been accused of training rebels from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, another separatist group fighting for an Islamic state in the southern Philippines.

In Tripoli, the government said it would have no comment until all the hostages were freed, but people in the streets were delighted at their country's role.

"The release is something wonderful and a victory for Libya and the hostages, especially because one of them is of Arab origin," said taxi driver Khalifa el-Radhi, 43. "We welcome these Libyan efforts that support human rights."

Of those released yesterday, all but the journalist were kidnapped April 23 while vacationing at a Malaysian diving resort and brought by boat to Jolo, an impoverished island near the Philippines' southern tip. Burgot was seized with two other French television journalists last month when they visited the rebel camp.

The rebels have been holding the hostages for months in a jungle on Jolo, 580 miles south of Manila. Still in captivity are one French, one German, two Finns and one South African kidnapped from the Malaysian resort, the two French journalists, and 12 Filipino Christian evangelists who went to the rebel camp to pray for the hostages.

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