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Rebels ask $2-million for sick hostage

Islamic rebels are seeking a $2-million ransom for an ailing German woman who is just one of their 19 foreign hostages _ a demand Philippine negotiators have rejected.

Foreign Secretary Domingo Siazon said the Abu Sayyaf captors had increased their demand from the $1-million previously asked for the safe release of Renate Wallert, 57, who suffers from high blood pressure.

The hostages _ three Germans, two French citizens, two South Africans, two Finns, a Lebanese, nine Malaysians and two Filipinos _ were abducted on April 23 from Sipadan Island, a Malaysian diving resort. They were then taken to the Philippine island of Jolo.

Despite intense international pressure to secure the release of the hostages _ especially Wallert _ chief negotiator Robert Aventajado said the government has ruled out any ransom payment, as have each of the governments of the foreign hostages.

Television footage shot Wednesday shows Wallert sitting on the floor and using her arms to move herself out to the steps of the captives' hut. Her condition has improved since she began taking high blood pressure medicine, negotiators have said.

In contrast to earlier images of sullen-faced captives, Wednesday's footage of the hostages showed some of them smiling and even clowning.

"I'm fine," Lebanese Marie Moarbes said in a message to her father. "Don't worry about me. I'm worrying about you. Don't smoke too much!"

Aventajado said negotiations will start Thursday or Friday, with the government insisting that Abu Sayyaf leaders first agree on their demands.

The rebels have called for the creation of an independent Islamic state, a demand the Philippine government has repeatedly rejected.

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