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Philippines Security Forces Rescue Hostages Held by Muslim Rebels - 2001-11-15

Security forces in southern Philippines say they have rescued seven hostages held by Islamist rebels on the island of Basilan. Several hostages, including an American couple, remain in captivity.

Philippine military authorities told reporters the hostages were recovered Thursday morning after they were abandoned by rebels of the Abu Sayyaf group. The group, including Philippine tourists, farmers and one hospital worker, were seized during several attacks over the past six months.

Southern Command spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Danilo Servando told VOA that the Abu Sayyaf is now under pressure as the military closes in on the rebels in the jungles of Basilan island. "This is the result now of a combination of tactical operation by the Philippine army and other military units and intelligence operations," he said.

Colonel Servando says the guerrillas still hold at least three other hostages, including an American couple seized last May from a beach resort in southwestern Philippines. "Hopefully we can also bag the remaining three hostages, including the American couple in due time," he said.

The rebels have killed more than a dozen hostages, including an American. Other captives have been released while others have escaped. Seven thousand Philippine soldiers are pursuing the rebels.

The Abu Sayyaf says it is fighting for an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines. The Philippine government says Abu Sayyaf is a criminal group that holds hostages for ransom.

The latest development comes one day after the commander of the U.S. forces in the Pacific, Admiral Dennis Blair, visited the southern Philippines. Admiral Blair said the U.S. government will support the Philippines in the campaign to rescue the hostages, adding that it is important that the people who visit and live in the Philippines be safe from kidnapping.

The government has asked for additional U.S. equipment to fight the Abu Sayyaf and indicated an agreement on the aid will be signed next week, when President Gloria Arroyo visits Washington.

Admiral Blair also praised the Philippines government for taking what he called a strong role in the region to build a new structure to combat international terrorism.