MNLF RENEGADES FREE KIDNAPPED TRADER

Zamboanga City, Feb. 13, 2003 -- Muslim rebes have freed a Filipino trader they kidnapped in the southern Philippine island of Jolo aspolice forces prepared to mount a rescue operation, officials said on Thursday.

The hostage Arman Gigante, 26, was handed over to the police by village officials on Thursday afterrenegade members of theMoro National Liberation Front (MNLF)released him before dawn, as policemen prepare to mount a rescue operation, officials said.

The rebels originally seized three men Wednesday in Parang town and freed the two -- Edgar Nistal and Leonard Macion --to raise ransom money. The trio, working on a company called Vitacell based in Davao City in southern Mindanao,were selling food supplements andvitamins when gunmen seized them.

Police did not say how much the kidnappers have asked, but an official said the trio were also mistaken byrebels as government agents.

"Dozens of police commandos were on their way to rescue the hostage, when the rebels decided to free them to village officials. They may have avoided armed confrontation with fellow Muslims," a provincial police official said.

Police said the victim was released unharmed and is being interviewed by authorities. Abu Sayyaf rebels last year also kidnapped three Indonesian tug boat crewmembers and four Filipino preachers in Jolo.

The military on Wednesday mounted a major offensive against the rebels in Jolo and reports said many Abu Sayyaf were killed, but there were no bodycounts. Jolo island military commander Col. Alexander Aleo said security forces were pursuing the rebels in Indanan town, a known lair of the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group. (Al Jacinto, PHNO Mindanao Bureau}


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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