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Thursday, May 04, 2000

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Malaysia seeks direct role in hostage crisis

By P. S. Suryanarayana

SINGAPORE, MAY 3. Malaysia today stepped up its diplomatic activism in an effort to secure the release of the 21 international hostages, including 10 Malaysians, from the hands of Muslim rebels of the Philippines, even as the Filipino Government maintained that it was in control of the crisis inspite of the move by the separatists to open more fronts of confrontation with Manila.

As the day was marked by claims and counter-claims about the death or killing of two of the hostages during or due to a Filipino military assault on a base of the abductors, a special envoy of the Malaysian Prime Minister outlined Kuala Lumpur's diplomatic strategy of holding direct talks on its own with the hostages if need be.

Even as there was until dusk today no authoritative confirmation of the claims by the kidnappers that two of their international captives had died last night, a main faction of the anti-Manila rebels, namely the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, was suspected to have taken 70 persons for possible deployment as a human shield in the context of the latest upsurge in its fighting with the Filipino military units.

At a different level, the military's hot pursuit of the rebels belonging to the mainstream segment of the `Abu Sayyaf Group' did not lead to the release of a batch of all-Filipino hostages (not to be confused with the 21 international hostages including one national of the Philippines). The `Abu Sayyaf Group' has been holding the Filipinos, numbering at least 27, for a number of weeks, and the military authorities were said to have located at least three of them. It was not clear whether the three, all children, were found abandoned by the militants or whether they were actually rescued.

As for the international hostages, who were kidnapped at Sipadan off the Malaysian coast over 10 days ago, the Estrada administration in Manila did not rule out a decisive commando- style military operation to rescue them. But Manila appeared to regard these three instances of hostage-taking as localised crises not necessitating a nationwide alert at this stage.

The demands by the hostage-takers were also not clearly identified by the Filipino authorities, given their deep suspicions of the propaganda content of the militant actions by the Muslim rebels. But the bottomline in the demands by the rebels was a call for an end to the Filipino military's offensive against them at this stage. The centrepiece of the earlier unheeded demands by the rebels was that the U.S. should set free three prisoners, including the one convicted for `masterminding' the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York.

It was against this background that the Malaysian Prime Minister's special envoy, Mr. Amin Mulia, travelled to Manila to meet the Filipino President, Mr. Joseph Estrada, and the Defence Secretary, Mr. Orlando Mercado, to discuss ways of cooperation between the two countries to free the international hostages. As part of a cooperative rescue mission, Malaysia would be willing to deal directly with the Sipadan raiders, if necessary, Mr. Amin told reporters in outlining his diplomatic mandate for discussions with the Philippines.

This aspect acquired additional importance in the context of pleas by the families of the international hostages, including Malaysians, for a non-military solution to the crisis.

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