ZAMBOANGA, Philippines — Muslim guerrillas continued to elude thousands of military troops seeking to rescue 19 hostages from a southern Philippine jungle Tuesday, despite reports that some of the captives had been seen alive.
Thousands of civilians fled from the sporadic clashes on remote Jolo island, and thousands of others were trapped inside a tight military blockade of rebel areas, refugees said.
President Joseph Estrada said he would only halt the four-day assault if the Abu Sayyaf rebels free all their captives, including six foreigners.
“Let them release the hostages and that’s the time we can talk,” he said.
Officials said some of the fleeing rebels were attempting to escape to nearby islands, but Estrada said there was no information any had been able to break through naval ship patrols.
The rebels are believed to have high-powered speedboats bought with some of the more than $15 million ransom they reportedly received from Libya and Malaysia for freeing other hostages.
The three separate Abu Sayyaf factions that were holding the hostages merged into two as they fled the assault, presidential Press Secretary Ricardo Puno said.
One group is holding American Jeffrey Schilling and Filipino Roland Ulla, who was kidnapped from a Malaysian diving resort in April. The other is holding two French journalists, three Malaysians and 12 Filipino Christian evangelists, he said.
The rebels are believed to be planning to use the hostages as human shields and bargaining chips, Puno said.
Since the assault began Saturday, the military has overrun three major Abu Sayyaf camps and smaller hide-outs, but found no sign of the hostages there.
“Yesterday the reports from the field said some of the hostages were sighted,” Puno said Tuesday. “We’re very hopeful that this will pan out.” He declined to provide details, and a military spokesman indicated the sighting may have been as long as two days earlier.
The spokesman, Gen. Generoso Senga, also indicating the military still had no clear idea of where the rebels were, suggesting the assault could take longer than the one week the military has estimated.
Officials continued a news blackout on most details of the assault.
Estrada said he believed all the hostages were safe, but offered little proof.
“In the history of kidnappers, when they kill their victims, they leave their bodies to show what they have done,” he said. “In as much as we haven’t seen any bodies of the hostages, we believe that they are all still alive.”
The rebels had threatened to attack southern cities and behead Schilling, of Oakland if they were attacked by the military.
Police arrested two suspected Abu Sayyaf members Tuesday in Zamboanga city, about 110 kilometers (85 miles) from Jolo, they believe are members of an explosives team.
One, Fauzi Dansalan, said he was arrested in Manila in connection with a bombing several months ago at a shopping mall but was cleared and released.
The other, Ahmad Hanapi, is a servant for the mother of Ivi Osani, Schilling’s wife, police said.
Osani is also the second cousin of rebel spokesman Abu Sabaya and the widow of a rebel killed by government troops several years ago.
Schilling, who converted to Islam in 1994, visited an Abu Sayyaf camp with Osani on Aug. 28 and was reportedly abducted because of an argument over religion with the rebels. Osani was not seized.
Seven rebels have been killed and 20 captured in the four days of fighting, while six government troops were wounded, military officials said.
Most transportation and telephone links to the island remained cut for a fourth day. Puno said cell sites were shut down by the military because the rebels were using cellular phones to communicate.
Estrada’s decision to attack the rebels after nearly five months of negotiations has been widely supported by Filipinos.
However, France, Germany and Malaysia have expressed concern that the attack would endanger the captives.
Asked his response to criticism from French President Jacques Chirac of the assault, Estrada replied: “I have not talked to him. He has no business interfering in our affairs.”
The Abu Sayyaf’s membership has grown from less than 200 to more than 3,000 because of the huge ransom payments, which attracted many recruits, the military says.