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Philippines may get tougher on kidnappers

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ZAMBOANGA, Philippines — The Philippine government is considering a tougher approach toward Muslim rebels after they kidnapped an American man and threatened to kill him, an official said Wednesday.

Abu Sayyaf rebels announced Tuesday they had abducted Jeffrey Schilling of Oakland, Calif. The group is still holding 18 other hostages on Jolo island after releasing six captives earlier this week for a reported $6 million paid by Libya.

Critics have warned that the ransom payment will encourage more kidnappings in the southern Philippines.

"We cannot go on like this," said presidential executive secretary Ronaldo Zamora. "Otherwise we will be doing exactly what those against ransom have been saying right from the beginning. We are just setting ourselves up for more problems in the future."

In a radio interview, rebel spokesman Abu Sabaya said the guerrillas are willing to begin negotiations with U.S. Embassy officials on Thursday for Schilling's release. But he demanded that representatives of North Korea, China, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Libya take part in the talks.

Sabaya said Tuesday that the rebels would announce their demands in three days and would kill Schilling if the United States did not accept them.

The Abu Sayyaf, the smaller of two main Muslim rebel groups fighting for an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines, is made up of several factions often working independently.

Schilling is being held by the same faction that kidnapped about 50 schoolchildren and teachers in March on neighboring Basilan island. The group beheaded two teachers after the United States ignored their demand for the release of several Arab terrorists held in U.S. jails.

The U.S. Embassy said the American government would make no deal with the rebels.

"We will not pay ransom, change policies, release prisoners, or make any concessions that reward hostage-taking," it said.

Sabaya said the rebels believe Schilling is a CIA agent because he had introduced himself as a Muslim convert but knew little about Islam.

U.S. Consul General John Caulfield called the allegation "ridiculous."

"This individual is a completely innocent person who has been unjustifiably seized," he said. "We want to see his immediate release and we look to the Philippine government to do everything possible to secure that."

Schilling arrived in the Philippines on March 8 and has been living with his Muslim Filipino girlfriend, Ivi V. Osani, in southern Zamboanga city.

Osani's mother, Aida Ajijol, said Osani and Abu Sayyaf spokesman Sabaya are second cousins. Sabaya had invited the couple to visit the rebels' camp on Jolo, she said.

In Oakland, Schilling's mother, Carol, said her son went to the Philippines partly because of a longtime interest in the region but stayed after he fell in love with Osani.

"I tried to get him out of the country three times but he didn't come out. He was too much in love," she said.

"I had looked forward to him coming home, and now I'm just scared," she said, her voice trembling and her eyes rimmed red.

Elsewhere Wednesday, the last of the six former hostages whose release Libya orchestrated left the North African nation. They had been flown to Libya on Tuesday for a day of thanksgiving and to listen to anti-U.S. speeches, but they never saw Moammar Gadhafi, the leader responsible for freeing them earlier in the week.

It had been widely predicted that Gadhafi would personally greet the six former hostages from France, Germany and South Africa.

Negotiators in the Philippines say Gadhafi paid $1 million in ransom per captive to the Abu Sayyaf, but Libya denies that, insisting it gained the releases by promising development projects in the Philippines. Rebels have been spotted with large amounts of cash in the Philippines in recent days.

Any foreign relations dividend Gadhafi may have earned appeared to have been limited. Germany and France sent lower-ranking officials to Tripoli to receive their freed citizens, and French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, who stayed behind in Paris, told Europe-1 radio that "normalization with Libya . . . doesn't depend on this Jolo affair."