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5 relieved, bitter hostages are released in Philippines

SHARE 5 relieved, bitter hostages are released in Philippines

BANGKOK, Thailand — Relieved, bitter and still frightened for their companions, five foreign hostages were released by kidnappers in the southern Philippines on Sunday for a reported $5 million ransom.

The releases were a half-step toward ending a strange four-month-long standoff in which the tiny island of Jolo has been flooded with ransom money both for the hostages and for a dozen journalists who were seized and then released while trying to interview them.

Four of those freed Sunday were from the original group of 21 people kidnapped on April 23 at a nearby diving resort in Malaysia. The fifth was a French television reporter who had been taken captive when she trekked into the jungle to film them on July 9.

Seven other Westerners remained hostages on the island, including the last five kidnapped in Malaysia and two other members of the same French television crew. A Filipino worker at the diving resort was also being held, as well as 12 Filipino evangelical Christians who walked into the mountains two months ago to pray with the hostages.

The kidnappers, a small band of gunmen calling themselves Abu Sayyaf and saying that they were Muslim separatists, had already received $5.5 million in ransom for 11 hostages who were released earlier, the Philippine military said.

Officially, the government insists that no ransom has been paid, but large amounts of cash are known to have been transferred to the rebels. Kidnapping is a cottage industry in the southern Philippines, and payoffs — commonly described as "room and board" — are part of the normal procedure.

The kidnappers seem to have made a point on Sunday of dividing the hostages, releasing a wife but not her husband, a father but not his son, and a woman but not her boyfriend. The gunmen are demanding more ransom for the remaining hostages.

An earlier statement from the kidnappers said the partial release Sunday was intended to discourage the government from a military reprisal. It said further releases would depend on additional payments.

There was little joy among the hostages released Sunday as they arrived by helicopter at the southern Philippine city of Zamboanga. Some were in tears.

"We feel relieved but we are not happy, because there are still people left behind," said Marie Moarbes, 33, a French-Lebanese woman.