MNLF Enters Abu Jungle In Bid To Free Hostages

MANILA, Philippines --- A Muslim rebel group which signed a 1996 peace pact with the Philippine government said it sent emissaries on Monday to negotiate the release of foreign and Filipino hostages being held by al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf gunmen on Jolo island.

Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) commander Khabir Malik said his group sent about 10 commanders to the jungle hideouts of the Abu Sayyaf on Jolo in Sulu province to convince the extremist group's leaders to release their captives. Malik waited with hundreds of armed rebels in Sulu's Patikul town for word from the emissaries, who he said were given three days to negotiate.

He refused to say what the MNLF would do if the Abu Sayyaf militants do not free the captives, who police say include a Jordanian journalist and two European bird watchers.

"We're resorting to peaceful discussions and God's wisdom to ask them to turn over their hostages to us," Malik told The Associated Press by cellphone from Patikul. "If they won't agree, we'll leave to God whatever will happen."

Malik said his group took the step after its commanders decided in a recent meeting to help the government, military and police clean up the image of Sulu, a poor, predominantly Muslim region 950 kilometers (590 miles) south of Manila that is a stronghold of the Moro insurgents.

The MNLF has denied any links with the Abu Sayyaf, but the military and police have long suspected some rebels provide refuge and other support to the extremists. Some fighters from the two groups are related by blood, security officials say.

Sulu's image has been tarnished by high-profile kidnappings for ransom, beheadings, bombings and deadly attacks blamed on the Abu Sayyaf, especially in the early 2000s. Although US-backed Philippine military offensives have considerably weakened the Abu Sayyaf, an estimated 300-plus extremists in Sulu and nearby islands remain a national security concern.

Malik said the MNLF move was not aimed at bolstering the candidacy of its chairman, Nur Misuari, who is running for governor of a five-province Muslim autonomous region in the south in elections on May 13. The rebels, he said, would not pay the ransom demanded by the Abu Sayyaf for the captives' freedom.

"We have long planned this but we could not coordinate well and muster the force we'll need so these violators will listen to us," Malik said.

Malik's group signed an autonomy deal with the government in 1996 but the pact did not lead to the disarming of the rebels, who returned to their communities with their firearms. The group later split into different factions with Misuari's group retaining hundreds of fighters and accusing the government of reneging on commitments to provide political and economic concessions under the accord.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a larger insurgent group with broke off from Malik's group in 1978, is currently engaged in Malaysian-brokered peace talks with the Philippine government.

Sulu provincial police chief Senior Superintendent Antonio Freyra said Malik informed him of the MNLF plan to negotiate the freedom of the hostages. Sulu police forces were on standby but would not get involved in the rebel initiative, he said.

Malik said the MNLF emissaries would attempt to meet with Radulan Sahiron, a one-armed militant, and other Abu Sayyaf commanders. Washington has offered a $1 million reward for the capture or killing of Sahiron, who has been accused of many terrorist acts.

Authorities believe the captives include a Dutch and a Swiss citizen who were abducted in February while bird watching in nearby Tawi Tawi province. Abu Sayyaf gunmen are also believed to be holding a Japanese treasure hunter and a Jordanian TV journalist together with two Filipino crew who reportedly traveled to Abu Sayyaf encampments in Sulu to interview the militants in June but failed to return.

Gov't-MILF Meeting

Meanwhile, negotiators of the government and MILF rebels seeking a new political entity (NPE) for a Moro governance are set to meet again in Malaysia on Jan. 20 to 26 for the annexes of the Framework Agreement (FA).

A reliable source told the Manila Bulletin Tuesday that the schedule is so far the dates for the continuation of the peace process under the Aquino administration with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

He added that he would not be surprised if the dates change, depending on the availability of the panels of the Government of the Philippines (GPH) and the MILF.

Peace negotiations' dates are determined by Malaysia as the third-party facilitator, in consultation with the two parties, he said.

"As far as the Moro front is concerned, the Jan. 20 to 26 schedule is fine with them," said the source who is privy to the peace talks.

The source said that the MILF will submit to Malaysia the names of its eight members for the Transition Commission (TransCom), whose 15 members (seven from government) are to be appointed by President Benigno S. Aquino III, during the meeting. (With a report from Edd K. Usman)