Manila: Al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf gunmen in the Philippines have refused to free foreign hostages after two weeks of negotiations but the militants have no immediate plans to harm the captives, a spokesman for another Muslim rebel group Monday.
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.
Various Abu Sayyaf militants are believed to be holding two European bird watchers, a Japanese treasure hunter, a Jordanian journalist, a Malaysian man and at least two Filipinos hostage.
The Moro rebels were not disarmed after signing the 1996 peace deal, and most returned to their rural villages on Jolo, where the smaller but more violent Abu Sayyaf also has a presence.
Moro rebel 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, a poor Muslim region where the Abu Sayyaf has been blamed for bombings, high-profile kidnappings for ransom and beheadings, primarily in the early 2000.
US-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 organisation.
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 be held by the extremists in Patikul`s jungles since 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 operation and armed confrontation with the hostage-takers to secure the captives` freedom, saying the Abu Sayyaf militants "can`t always have their way."