JOLO, Philippines — An American held hostage by Muslim rebels appealed to the Philippine government to halt its massive rescue effort so that negotiations for his release can resume.
“I’m still alive,” Jeffrey Schilling said in a radio interview broadcast Thursday. “I’m fine, I’m well.”
The interview, conducted by satellite telephone, was Schilling’s first since thousands of troops launched an assault on Saturday to rescue him and 18 other hostages held by Abu Sayyaf rebels.
Two French journalists escaped from the rebels on Tuesday, leaving Schilling, three Malaysians, a Filipino abducted in April, and 12 Filipino Christian evangelists still in captivity.
In the interview, conducted Wednesday night with the Radio Mindanao Network, Schilling appealed for the military operations to cease so negotiations could continue. He said civilians were being hurt by the assault, creating more support for the rebels.
Schilling, of Oakland, California, converted to Islam in 1994 and visited an Abu Sayyaf camp with his Filipino wife on Aug. 28 and was reportedly abducted because of an argument over religion with the rebels. His wife was not seized.
Rebel spokesman Abu Sabaya, who spoke in the same radio interview, acknowledged that four of his men had been killed in the assault and said the rebels were open to negotiations with the Philippine and U.S. governments.
The military says seven rebels have been killed and 20 captured in the six days of fighting, while six government troops were wounded.
President Joseph Estrada said Wednesday he would order a halt to the assault if all the hostages are freed.
He portrayed the escape of the two French journalists as vindication of his decision to use force against the rebels.
The attack had been strongly criticized by French President Jacques Chirac, who said it could endanger the hostages.
The two journalists, who headed home Wednesday, credited their nighttime escape to the army assault on the guerrillas.
Estrada beamed as he presented the journalists at a news conference in Manila, an arm around each.
“As you can see for yourself, these two gentlemen are in good shape,” Estrada said.
The journalists – Jean-Jacques Le Garrec and Roland Madura of France-2 television – were the first hostages recovered from Jolo, a remote southern island, since Estrada ordered the military assault.