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Muslims free Malaysian from Philippine camp

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JOLO, Philippines — Muslim rebels released a Malaysian who had been held in a Philippine jungle camp since April, when he was kidnapped from a diving resort along with 20 other mostly foreign hostages, officials said Friday.

Abdul Jawar Salamat, a Malaysian police officer, was freed early Friday. He is the second Malaysian to be freed by the separatist rebel group Abu Sayyaf, following the release of a forest ranger last month.

It wasn't immediately clear why the Abu Sayyaf were freeing Malaysians, though there had been some backdoor negotiations between the two nations.

"He is in my hands already," businessman Wee Dee Ping, a former presidential adviser who is helping the government broker the release of the hostages, said of Abdul Jawar.

Between the hostages seized April 23 at a Malaysian diving resort and several other groups of captives, Muslim extremists were holding 39 people in the southern Philippines — including 21 foreigners.

Three Europeans ministers, meanwhile, were in the Philippines Friday to urge President Joseph Estrada's government not to use force in freeing the hostages.

"It is of utmost importance that there be no use of force," German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told reporters.

Fischer said he was thankful for assurances from Estrada and other officials that "there will be a peaceful, sound, and we hope quick release of all hostages."

"They know what we expect," added French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine.

The hostages are from France, Germany, Finland, South Africa, Lebanon, Malaysia and the Philippines. All are believed to be held by the Abu Sayyaf. They are also blamed for the abduction of a German journalist, but they have denied involvement in that case.

Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja released a letter written by one of the hostages, Finn Risto Vahanen.

"Our mental condition is getting worse every day and it is not far from one of us committing suicide," Vahanen wrote. "Please do your utmost to get us out of these inhumane conditions without delay, peacefully without force."

Chief government negotiator Robert Aventajado said the foreign ministers appeared to be satisfied with the Philippines' explanation of its attempts to resolve the hostage crisis, although they expressed "a little bit of impatience."

Aventajado suspended formal negotiations with Abu Sayyaf leaders more than one month ago after the rebels began escalating their demands. He said he was optimistic Friday after talking twice the previous day by telephone with Ghalib Andang, an Abu Sayyaf leader.

Andang, also known as Commander Robot, proposed that all future contacts be handled by one go-between because of confusion created by the large number of unofficial emissaries who have been visiting the rebels, Aventajado said.

Aventajado said he agreed but did not identify the go-between.

However, in a reflection of ongoing confusion within the government negotiating team, two other negotiators nevertheless visited the Abu Sayyaf on Thursday and Friday.

Officials earlier said Andang has offered to drop all his previous political demands for the release of the hostages — including the creation of an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines — if about $1 million in ransom is paid for each of the hostages.

The European foreign ministers said they were bound by an international agreement not to pay any ransom.

The Abu Sayyaf abducted an original group of 21 hostages from a Malaysian diving resort on April 23.

The rebels then seized a group of Filipino Christian evangelists who traveled to their camp on July 1 and three French journalists who went there last Sunday to interview the original hostages. They are also holding three Filipinos kidnapped from nearby Basilan island.

The Abu Sayyaf is the smaller of two Muslim rebel groups fighting the Philippine government. Government troops recently seized the headquarters of the larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front in southern Maguindanao province.