JOLO, Philippines, AP
Three of the last five hostages held by Muslim rebels on a southern Philippine island were rescued Wednesday by the military during a clash in a mangrove swamp, officials said. The rescue of the three Malaysians left only American Jeffrey Schilling and Filipino Roland Ulla still in the hands of the Abu Sayyaf rebels, who have seized scores of hostages in various kidnappings this year. “That’s good news,” President Joseph Estrada said of the rescue. “Schilling will come after that, it will happen soon.” But the rescue gave little lift to Estrada’s beleaguered government, embroiled in a worsening scandal over alleged payoffs to the president from illegal gambling lords. Military officials said the Malaysians were rescued after troops raided a mangrove area on southern Jolo island and fought for nearly an hour with about 30 rebels. The military had been following the trail of the rebels for several days, they said. One soldier was wounded in the fighting, officials said. “I’m very pleased with the news,” said Malaysian Ambassador Manzoor Hussein Arshad of the rescue of the Malaysians. “I’m pleased that their ordeal is now over.” The three were seized Sept. 10 from a Malaysian resort despite a pledge by the Abu Sayyaf not to kidnap any more victims while negotiations were underway for the release of earlier captives. Their abduction prompted Estrada to order a massive attack on Sept. 16 to free the 19 hostages then being held. The rescued hostages — resort manager Mohamad Noh Sulaiman, dive master Joe Joseph Jongkinoh, and construction worker Kan Vui Siong — were in good condition except for bruises and contusions, said military spokesman Gen. Generoso Senga. One had a wound on the forehead after being hit by a rock and another was limping from being dragged by a rebel during the fighting, officials said. There was no definite word on the status of the two remaining hostages — Schilling, a Muslim convert from Oakland, California, and Ulla, the last of a group of 21 tourists and workers kidnapped from another Malaysian resort on April 21. Army Lt. Abdurasad Serajad, who leads a military team consisting of former Muslim separatist rebels, said villagers and intercepted radio messages indicated Schilling is being moved among various Abu Sayyaf hide-outs in the towns of Patikul and Panamao on Jolo. There was no information about the Filipino captive, he said. The rebels received more than US$15 million in ransom from Malaysia and Libya for the release of earlier groups of hostages, negotiators said. On Tuesday, one rebel commander and 18 followers surrendered to the military on Jolo, bringing to 110 the number of Abu Sayyaf guerrillas who have given up since the military launched the rescue operation, said Col. Hilario Atendido, spokesman for the military’s Southern Command.