From combined dispatches
ZAMBOANGA, Philippines Eighty-nine persons held hostage for 36 hours by rebels loyal to a renegade Muslim leader were freed yesterday after a dramatic standoff with armed soldiers.
In exchange for freeing the captives, the rebels were allowed to keep their weapons, move to another guerrilla camp 40 miles away and at least temporarily avoid prosecution.
Cristy Solis, 35, in whose house the rebels hid the hostages, said that it never occurred to her that her family could experience such events in Zamboanga, a port city where the military maintains its largest base outside of Manila.
“I thought the incident only happened in other [troubled] provinces. But we also experienced this nightmare. I hope one day I will wake up,” Mrs. Solis said as she clung to her two young daughters.
The bedraggled hostages some barefoot and most still in the pajamas they were wearing when they were seized emerged from a sprawling government complex that had been captured by the rebels in an attack that began last week.
Julhambri Misuari, a leader of a faction of the separatist Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), said: “Our agreement is that we will not be pursued and we will commit no trouble.”
Mr. Misuari is the nephew of Nur Misuari, the southern governor who was arrested Saturday on Malaysian waters as he tried to flee a manhunt by thousands of soldiers. Mr. Misuari, who lost the MNLF leadership earlier this year and was about to lose the governor’s post, has been accused of fomenting the latest violence in order to disrupt elections for his successor.
Malaysian authorities holding Mr. Misuari also were investigating whether he is connected to the Abu Sayyaf, another Islamic rebel group linked to the al Qaeda terrorist network. On Basilan island, near Zamboanga, the Abu Sayyaf, a ragtag group of radicals, has been holding a U.S. missionary couple and a Filipino hostage for more than six months, defying calls for them to release their captives.
Despite intense fighting Tuesday 25 rebels, a soldier and a civilian reportedly died the government yesterday claimed victory in freeing the hostages without further casualties and in rooting out the rebels.
Lt. Gen. Roy Cimatu, head of the military’s Southern Command, claimed the rebels would be disarmed later.
Initially, the rebels had taken 118 hostages. They freed eight hostages during a forced march in which the captives were roped together as human shields, then 21 more just after midnight after negotiations with government officials.
Under the deal, guerrillas still holed up in the 150-acre government complex were transported to join those holding the hostages in several houses. Ten rebels captured in yesterday’s fighting also were released.
The poor southern Philippines is home to a 5 million-strong Muslim minority; the country is predominantly Roman Catholic. The MNLF rebels had been active in the region until a peace deal was struck five years ago.
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo ordered officials to speed up development in the impoverished and violent south, saying, “We have to make sure that it won’t happen again.”