MANILA, Philippines — Al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf gunmen in the Philippines have refused to free foreign hostages after two weeks of negotiations with a Muslim rebel group, which said Monday it would continue talking to the extremists.
Hundreds of rebels of the Moro National Liberation Front, which signed an autonomy deal with the government in 1996, have encamped in the foothills of mountainous Patikul town on southern Jolo island for two weeks to negotiate the release of foreign and Filipino hostages long held by the Abu Sayyaf in its jungle lairs.
Abu Sayyaf militants are believed to be holding two European bird watchers, a Japanese treasure hunter, a Jordanian journalist, a Malaysian man and two Filipinos.
The Moro rebels were not disarmed after signing the 1996 peace deal, and most returned to their rural villages on Jolo, a poor Muslim region where the smaller but more violent Abu Sayyaf also has a presence.
Moro commander Khabir Malik said his group has taken the initiative to seek the freedom of the hostages to help the government clean up the image of Jolo, where Abu Sayyaf has been blamed for bombings, high-profile kidnappings for ransom and beheadings, primarily in the early 2000.
U.S.-backed military offensives have crippled the Abu Sayyaf in recent years, but it remains a national security threat. Washington has blacklisted the Abu Sayyaf as a terrorist organization.
Malik said he met an Abu Sayyaf militant, Jul-Asman Sawadjaan, over the weekend to seek the release initially of a Jordanian journalist and two Filipinos, who were believed to have been seized by the extremists after traveling to their jungle hideouts in Patikul's jungles to interview them in June last year. But the extremists did not show any sign that they would free their captives soon, Malik said.
Other Abu Sayyaf commanders are believed to be separately holding two European bird watchers, who were seized in February last year in nearby Tawi Tawi province, a Malaysian man and a Japanese treasure hunter in Jolo's jungles.
"It's not easy but we're doing everything to win their freedom," Malik said. "We're observing maximum tolerance, and we'll stick with the negotiations."
Malik, however, suggested the Moro forces could consider other options – including a rescue – to secure the captives' freedom, saying the Abu Sayyaf militants "can't always have their way."
Two military officials monitoring the talks said the extremists have demanded a huge ransom for the release of the hostages. The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
Malik has not mentioned any ransom demand by the Abu Sayyaf militants.