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Philippine Muslim rebels release four hostages

Military helicopters lifted four European hostages from a southern Philippine jungle Saturday in a dramatic end to their 140 days of captivity at the hands of extremist Muslim rebels.

Government negotiators called in the helicopters following a bloody ambush of two go-betweens en route to remote Jolo island. One of the go-betweens' bodyguards was killed and eight others were wounded in the attack, negotiators said. Many civilians were also injured, they said.

"This was a really very challenging day," said chief negotiator Robert Aventajado. "It was like going through the eye of a needle. At least at the end of the day we ended up successful."

The tourists' flight to freedom came after they were released by the Abu Sayyaf rebels, who say they are fighting for an independent Islamic state in the mostly Roman Catholic Philippines.

The Abu Sayyaf still have 16 hostages, including two French journalists, 13 Filipinos and an American, who was being held by a separate faction of the group.

Negotiators said rising violence on Jolo and growing tensions within the Abu Sayyaf over the sharing of millions of dollars in ransom are likely to complicate efforts to gain the French journalists' release.

The gaunt former captives beamed Saturday as they stepped from their helicopters in Zamboanga, where they were presented to their ambassadors.

The youngest hostage, German Marc Wallert, 27, raised both arms as he disembarked.

"It feels great of course," said Wallert, whose mother and father were released earlier.

Wallert said his 20 weeks in captivity were "hell" and he had doubted until the last minute that his release would happen.

"The day was indescribably dramatic," Wallert said. When a car came to take him and three other hostages to freedom, "I was expecting we were just being moved to a new camp," he said.

In Germany, Wallert's parents rejoiced when told of his release.

"This is the happiest day of my life," his father, teacher Werner Wallert, said. "But I'll only believe he's free when I see him at the helicopter."

Besides Wallert, Stephane Loisy of France and Finns Risto Vahanen and Seppo Juhani Franti were released Saturday. All were kidnapped April 23 from Malaysia's Sipadan diving resort.

The former hostages were to spend the night in Cebu before flying to the Libyan capital of Tripoli aboard a Libyan plane.

In Libya, two celebrations were planned, the first at Tripoli airport and the second elsewhere in the Libyan capital, said Saleh Abdel Salam, a member of the Gadhafi International Association for Charitable Organization.

The organization, which played a leading role in the negotiations, paid $1-million for the freedom of each of the hostages, negotiators said. An earlier group of released hostages also flew to Libya.

But not all of the former captives were happy about the trip.

"I don't like that I have to become this kind of clown yet again in Tripoli," Franti said. "I want to go home to take care of my life. I have spent half a year in that hell and in constant fear of death. The past five months have made me older than 10 years would have in normal conditions."

Libya, which reportedly paid $6-million 10 days ago for the release of six other hostages, has resisted paying for the French journalists still in captivity, saying their company should foot the bill.

French President Jacques Chirac, speaking by telephone with the families of Jean-Jacques Le Garrec and Roland Madura, reaffirmed "France's determination to obtain their freedom as soon as possible," the presidential palace said.

"I feel happiness and also sorrow for those who were left behind," Vahanen said. "Mentally it has been really straining. Luckily no one committed suicide, but it was not far away."

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder voiced relief and thanked Libya for its efforts to win the hostages' release.

"It proved right that the German government insisted on a peaceful solution. Our patience was rewarded," he said.

On Friday, Ghalib "Robot" Andang, the leader of the rebel faction holding the hostages, backed out of a promise to free all of the Europeans, instead offering only three. Government negotiators refused, canceling the release.

Andang was worried about an assault if all the foreign hostages are freed, Aventajado said. Aventajado said he told Andang an attack was unlikely as long as the rebels are holding a group of 12 Filipino Christian evangelists.

The evangelists were seized in early July when they visited the camp to pray for the hostages.

A separate faction is holding an American, Jeffrey Schilling, who was kidnapped Aug. 28.

Schilling, 24, a Muslim convert from Oakland, Calif., was seized when he visited a rebel camp with his Filipino Muslim wife, Ivi Osani.

The rebels have not announced demands for Schilling's release, although Sabaya has privately demanded $10-million.

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