- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2000

JOLO, Philippines In the first major success of a 17-day rescue assault, Philippine troops freed a group of Christian evangelists yesterday after one escaped and alerted the military.

The escaped evangelist was taken in a military helicopter, and he pointed out the rebels' camp from the air. The soldiers then attacked the rebels, who fled after a brief clash, military chief of staff Gen. Angelo Reyes said.

The recovery of the 12 Filipinos, held by Abu Sayyaf rebels for three months, left five hostages in guerrilla hands an American, three Malaysians and a Filipino.

The rescue on Jolo island was a welcome success for the military, which has admitted underestimating the rebels' strength in the assault that began Sept. 16.

"That is our good news for today," President Joseph Estrada said. "I think in one more week we will end this problem."

Evangelist Fernando Solon slipped away from the rebels after asking to take a bath Sunday night and discovering that his captors were not following him, officials said. He spent the night hiding in a mangrove swamp before locating a group of soldiers yesterday morning, they said.

Mr. Solon is the third hostage to escape from the rebels since thousands of troops began the assault. Two French journalists escaped Sept. 19 while their captors were fleeing the military.

Many of the evangelists fasted in captivity, and their leader, Wilde Almeda, was reportedly in poor condition. He was carried in a makeshift chair by his followers when the rebels traveled through the jungle.

The Abu Sayyaf faction that held the evangelists now has no human shields, giving the military a freer hand to attack.

The military attacked another rebel faction yesterday with howitzers and assault helicopters, officials said.

The 12 evangelists from the Jesus Miracle Crusade, known as "prayer warriors," were abducted July 1 when they visited the rebel camp to pray for an earlier group of hostages. They were seized despite their payment of 35 sacks of rice and $3,000 as an "admission fee."

American hostage Jeffrey Schilling of Oakland, Calif., also was seized when he voluntarily visited a rebel camp with his wife, a Muslim Filipina and relative of several rebels.

Military leaders have acknowledged mistakes in the assault: They expected the Abu Sayyaf would fight instead of fleeing into the jungle, and did not foresee the support the rebels enjoyed on the predominantly Muslim island.

Gen. Reyes, the chief of staff, said 117 rebels are believed to have been killed, while four government troops have died.

The military estimates the Abu Sayyaf had about 4,000 armed men when the assault began up from only 300 when the rebels began a kidnapping spree in March. Many recruits joined the rebels to share in more than $15 million in ransom paid by Libya and Malaysia, the military says.

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