- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2000

TALIPAO, Philippines Two foreign hostages died in a clash early today between military troops and Muslim rebels who are holding 21 persons in the southern Philippines, a guerrilla leader claimed.

But military officials said they had no knowledge of any hostage fatalities, and the claim could not be immediately verified.

Soldiers and Abu Sayyaf rebels clashed several times yesterday and today after about 100 heavily armed guerrillas attempted to escape through an encirclement by the military. At least one soldier was killed and six injured, officials said.

Commander Robot, an Abu Sayyaf leader, claimed in a telephone interview with a local ABS-CBN radio network that one hostage had been shot in the encounter and another died of a heart attack.

He apologized to their families and said it was not the rebels' doing.

Yesterday, the rebels threatened to behead two foreign hostages if the military does not back away from the rebels' hide-out, but a government spokesman said the encirclement of the area would continue.

The fighting occurred 300 yards from where the hostages were being kept on Jolo island, chief government negotiator Nur Misuari told reporters in nearby Zamboanga city.

Earlier, French President Jacques Chirac said he was worried about the hostages' fate and called for a safe end to the crisis.

Police said firing continued to be heard in the area until last night, but officials said this involved isolated shots.

Mr. Misuari, a former rebel himself, said he was assessing the situation before sending his emissaries back to resume talks.

"They're in a fighting mood, in a killer's mood, so it's very dangerous, but … we will see how we can penetrate," he added.

The hostages 10 Malaysians, three Germans, two French nationals, two South Africans, two Finns, one Lebanese and a Filipina have been held on Jolo since they were kidnapped from a Malaysian dive resort on Easter Sunday.

Jolo, 600 miles south of Manila, is a stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf, one of two groups fighting for an Islamic state in the mostly Catholic country.

The gunbattle broke out a day after a group of journalists saw the hostages, who pleaded for a quick end to their captivity and said they were hungry, sick and frightened.

It also occurred hours after a caller to a local radio station who claimed to be one of the rebels said they would behead two foreign captives unless the troops were pulled back.

Some 2,000 troops have ringed the camp where the hostages are kept. The high tension has led to sporadic exchanges of fire with the rebels. But yesterday's shootout was the first time there were casualties.

"I want to tell you that I am deeply worried by the fate of the hostages," Mr. Chirac wrote in a letter to Philippine President Joseph Estrada, calling for a safe end to the crisis.

Finland urged an end to the crisis without endangering the hostages and said it would send an envoy to help negotiations.

"Look after our children. Give them food. Give them medicine and please release them," Monica Aggenbag in South Africa appealed on behalf of her 36-year-old daughter, Monique Strydom, and son-in-law Callie.

A military spokesman said yesterday's violence erupted when some rebels tried to slip through the military encirclement.

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