Prisoner released to help free Filipino hostages

MANILA, Philippines (AP) - A jailed tribal leader has been temporarily freed to help urge gunmen, including his relatives, to safely release 16 mostly grade school teachers in the latest high-profile hostage crisis to hit the Philippines in recent months, officials said Sunday.

On Friday, at least five Manobo tribesmen snatched the 16 people, who were walking along a main road from graduation ceremonies at three schools, and took them at gunpoint aboard two motorcycle taxis to a hilly hinterland in remote Prosperidad town in southeastern Agusan del Sur province, officials said.

A government negotiator resumed talks Sunday with the hostage-takers, who have demanded the freedom of tribal leader Jobert Perez, who was jailed for taking 79 people hostage in 2009 over a long-running clan feud in Agusan. A local court has temporarily freed Perez, who was allowed by police to urge the gunmen over the phone to peacefully end the hostage-taking, regional police chief Reynaldo Rafal said.

"This is tragic because these are lowly paid teachers who are being held," Prosperidad Mayor Alvin Magdamet told The Associated Press by telephone. "They worked hard to prepare for the graduation ceremonies and ended being hostaged."

Aside from the teachers, the other hostages who traveled from remote villages to attend the school ceremonies were students, relatives and two men who drove the motorcycle taxis that the gunmen commandeered, Rafal said.

Food and water were delivered Saturday to the hostage-takers, who apparently took their hostages to abandoned huts in a forested area about two miles (three kilometers) from where they were kidnapped. Police sharpshooters and army troops have been deployed to unspecified areas near the hostage scene, Rafal said.

The latest hostage-taking erupted seven months after a kidnapping crisis in Manila ended in bloodshed when a dismissed policeman took captive a busload of Hong Kong tourists to demand his job back. The Aug. 23 ordeal ended with police and the gunman opening fire, leaving eight hostages and the assailant dead and drawing international criticism for the bungled police rescue.

"We learned many lessons from that incident," Rafal said. "We've taken steps to avoid a repeat."

The 2009 four-day hostage crisis in Agusan, about 515 miles (830 kilometers) southeast of Manila, ended peacefully after Manobo tribal elders convinced Perez and several of his relatives to safely free their captives.

Perez and three other gunmen were jailed, angering his relatives who thought they would be let free in exchange for releasing his captives, officials said.

Clan feuds, fueled by weak law enforcement in remote regions awash with illegal firearms, have often erupted into deadly clashes, kidnappings and hostage-takings in the southern Philippines. Such violence underscores the complexity of security problems in the south, where troops have been battling Muslim and communist insurgents, along with al-Qaida-linked militants, for years.


Associated Press writer Teresa Cerojano contributed to this report.


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