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Philippine Rebels Release Hostages in Exchange for Free Passage - 2001-11-28

Muslim rebels in the southern Philippines have released more than a hundred hostages in exchange for safe passage out of Zamboanga. The rebels seized the hostages Tuesday during heavy fighting with Philippine government troops.

The heavily armed rebels Wednesday were escorted out of the regional capital by Philippine security forces. They left behind 89 civilians they had seized Tuesday morning during heavy fighting with government forces. The former hostages, many in their nightclothes, were tired but unharmed.

The rebels earlier had released 21 other hostages during all-night negotiations that brought a peaceful end to the standoff.

The rebels seized the civilians to use as a human shield after government troops before dawn Tuesday attacked their stronghold outside Zamboanga - one thousand kilometers south of Manila. At least 27 people were killed in the violence and a score of people were wounded.

The rebels are supporters of the governor of the autonomous Muslim region in the south, Nur Misuari. They were ordered to leave the compound last week after supporters of Mr. Misuari clashed with Philippine troops on neighboring Jolo island - killing more than a hundred people.

The government accused Mr. Misuari of instigating the uprising in order to disrupt elections this week for a new governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. The elections were held Monday without major incident. The results are expected in a few days.

Mr. Misuari has been charged with rebellion. He was arrested in Malaysia Saturday. Malaysian officials say they are investigating reports that Mr. Misuari is linked to the Abu Sayyaf group, which is also based in southern Philippines and is fighting for a separate state in the region. The Abu Sayyaf last year kidnapped more than 20 people from a resort in Malaysia.

Malaysian officials say they plan to deport Mr. Misuari to the Philippines. But Philippines National Security Advisor Roilo Golez told VOA his government is not pressing for his extradition. "We are giving Malaysia all the respect by not interfering in their own investigation," he said.

Mr. Misuari led the Moro National Liberation Front, which for 24 years fought for an independent state in southern Philippines. He signed a peace agreement five years ago that granted autonomy to parts of the southern Philippines and made him governor of the autonomous region.

However, he was ousted as chairman of the Front earlier this year and a rival was named candidate for governor in Monday's elections. Mr. Misuari rejected the elections as a violation of the peace accord and 10 days ago threatened to resume his fight against the central government.