Philippine army rejects call for negotiations to free hostages

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippine army on Wednesday rejected demands by Islamist militants to start negotiations for the release of three abducted foreign tourists and a Filipino woman and halt an offensive on a remote southern island. Two Canadians, a Norwegian and the Filipino, who were taken hostage at a resort on Samal island on Sept. 21, have appealed by video to Philippine authorities to stop military operations on the tiny island of Jolo, to the west of Samal, and to Canada to help negotiate for their freedom. There has been speculation the four had been taken hundreds of miles west to Jolo, a stronghold of Abu Sayyaf, a small but violent Islamist militant group, known for bomb attacks, kidnappings and beheadings in the southern Philippines. "There is no negotiation that can be made with any of those who are perpetrating this crime," military spokesman Colonel Restituto Padilla told a press briefing at the main army base in Manila. "We cannot, as of the matter, discuss operational details, but we can assure you the safety of the hostages is always foremost in our minds." The army commander on Jolo, General Alan Arrojado, said the military would not stop operations against the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf because there was no proof the hostages were in that area. "It may be a mock up scenario, it could be taken elsewhere and made it appear to be on Jolo to stop our operations," he said about the video appeal of the hostages. "There will be no let up in our operations." Asked about the video, a Canadian Foreign Ministry spokesman said the government was "pursuing all appropriate channels" to seek further information. Armed men with covered faces were seen in the video standing behind the four hostages who made appeals to halt army offensives and to negotiate for their release. All of them were shown to be sitting in a jungle while the militants with covered faces held rifles and machetes and shouted "Allahu akbar" (God is greatest). The militants' leader spoke fluent English, demanding the artillery attacks be halted and the negotiation of the release of the hostages. He did not identify what group they belonged to or their location. "The positive thing that we derive from this video is that the kidnap victims are in good health, seem to be, and that is, as far as we are concerned, part of the good news that we got out of it," Padilla said. (Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Nick Macfie)