- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 28, 2001

From combined dispatches
ZAMBOANGA, Philippines Philippine Muslim leader Nur Misuari's armed followers agreed today to swap all 59 hostages, as well as their weapons, in exchange for safe passage, a senior military official said.
The accord reached last night calls for the gunmen to turn over the hostages and their weapons, after which they will be taken to a "holding area" outside this southern port city and allowed to disperse, said Lt. Gen. Roy Cimatu, the senior military commander in the southern Philippines.
The agreement came after 28 persons were killed in battles with Philippine troops on the outskirts of a major southern city, officials said.
In exchange for agreeing to free what originally were thought to be 70 to 80 hostages, the guerrillas of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) would be allowed safe passage out of Zamboanga, the military said.
"All the hostages will be released sometime tonight, in accordance with steps that have been agreed upon," Assistant Interior Secretary Abraham Iribani, who took part in negotiations with the gunmen, said earlier yesterday by phone.
Parting with their weapons was a major demand of the Philippine military.
The guerrillas are followers of Mr. Misuari, a Muslim governor now detained in neighboring Malaysia. He is facing rebellion charges in the Philippines for purportedly ordering last week's failed MNLF uprising on Jolo island, near Zamboanga.
The gunmen abducted the hostages from their homes and used them as human shields while fleeing a hilltop base overlooking the largely Christian city of 750,000 after military helicopters and bomber planes pounded their positions in pre-dawn raids.
At least 25 guerrillas, two soldiers and one civilian were killed, while dozens were wounded in the fighting around the base, which raged for most of the day, officials said.
"We have taken over the [base]. We were able to dislodge them," southern military commander Lt. Gen. Roy Cimatu told Manila's ANC television network.
The fighting began early yesterday when the guerrillas tried to break out of a cluster of buildings, where they had been gathered for days.
Residents in their nightclothes, barefoot and muddy from slips and falls in the dark, had fled in terror when the fighting started.
Many were seized and paraded down a mud track by guerrillas shouting "Allahu akbar" ("God is great").
The hostages wept and pleaded with troops not to open fire as the guerrillas prodded them forward with rifle butts toward another district, where they joined a larger group of rebels.
Many Zamboanga residents followed, yelling expletives at the gunmen, but some joined the rebels in shouting "Allahu akbar."
The drama, played out on national television, was the latest security embarrassment for President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, for whom the Muslim secessionist problem in the south has become a major headache.
It appears to be contained in the south, but the violence in Zamboanga, headquarters of the southern military command, is a setback.
Mrs. Arroyo returned a week ago from a visit to Washington, where she won pledges for nearly $100 million in security assistance to help the fight against Islamic separatists.


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