|Four Philippine hostages escape from guerrillas' grip - Filipino hostages run towards government troops after escaping from their captors - Muslim Abu Sayyaf guerrillas - in Lamitan town in the southern Philippines on June 2. The guerrillas claim they have taken another 200 hostages on the island. REUTERS/Erik de Castro|
LAMITAN, Philippines (Reuters) - Four hostages held by Muslim rebels in the southern Philippines escaped on Saturday during a military strike on guerrilla positions, officials said.
The hostages, three Filipino tourists, including an eight-year-old boy, and a resort security guard, were among the 20 people kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf rebels from an island resort near Palawan last Sunday.
Three Americans are among the remaining hostages held by the rebels, who claimed they have taken 200 more people captive after taking over a church and a hospital on the southern island of Basilan.
Fighting between the rebels and the soldiers erupted in Lamitan, a town on Basilan about 900 km (550 miles) from Manila, after between 50 and 60 rebels raided a hospital looking for medicine and doctors, Philippine armed forces spokesman Brigadier-General Ediberto Adan told reporters.
"As a result of this operation, one hostage taken from Dos Palmas resort was rescued. His name is Eldrin Morales, one of the staff of Dos Palmas resort," Adan said.
Officials said the other three were eight-year-old R.J. Recio, Reghis Romero and Riza Rodriguez Santos.
"One soldier, one Cafgu (Citizens Armed Force Geographical Unit) and one Abu Sayyaf commander -- a certain Commander Yusop -- were killed (in Saturday's operation)," Adan said, adding that the body of Yusop was accounted for by the military.
Adan said there were 25 casualties from Friday's fighting on Basilan.
REBELS CLAIM MORE HOSTAGES
Muslim rebels said they now hold doctors, patients and a priest among their latest captives.
Joey Candido, one of the Lamitan hostages taken in the hospital, told Reuters: "One kind Abu Sayyaf allowed me to run away. I saw two Americans inside hugging each other in fright."
Mortar and gunfire ripped through Lamitan on Friday night. At least one body could be seen on the street in the morning and soldiers slowly advanced through the town to the sound of sporadic gunfire.
A spokesman for the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas said in a telephone call to a local radio station that the group controlled a church in Lamitan and its main hospital.
"We are part of an Abu Sayyaf suicide squad," spokesman Abu Sulaiman told the radio. "Now we have 200 more hostages. If you do not stop the military action, we will execute the hostages."
Basilan is a mountainous, heavily forested island and its jungle-clad hills have long provided base camps for the Abu Sayyaf, which claims to be fighting for an independent Muslim homeland but appears to concentrate on kidnap for ransom.
Local officials in Lamitan, a market town of more than 100,000 people, mostly Christians, said the rebels had taken over St. Peters Church and an adjacent hospital. Guerrilla snipers were in the belfry and on the roof of the hospital, they said.
There was no word on where the remaining resort hostages were. But one of them appealed on local radio for an end to the military assault, saying that the hostages' lives were in danger.
"Please tell the government not to use the military to solve this problem," hostage Teresa Ganzon told the radio station.
MILITARY OPERATION CONTINUES
While welcoming the news of hostage escapes, the government reiterated it would not stop military operations against the Muslim rebels and would only negotiate for an unconditional release of the captives.
"We cannot stop the operations. This is what's needed. It is important to keep up the pressure by the military. We cannot let up on the military operations," Presidential spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao told Manila radio station dzRM.
National Security adviser Roilo Golez also told ANC television channel the government would not pay ransoms and the only negotiation would be for the release of the hostages.
Golez said the church and adjacent hospital was under military control.
"Government forces are surrounding the area to prevent Abu Sayyafs from escaping. We are studying the situation and what should be done," Golez said.