By Michaela Cabrera
PROSPERIDAD, Philippines (Reuters) – Armed Filipino bandits demanding murder charges against them be dropped freed nine of 57 people they abducted from a school on a southern island on Friday, a government official said.
The hostages were taken from an elementary school and nearby homes on lawless Mindanao on Thursday, less than three weeks after a massacre in a nearby province, throwing an unwelcome spotlight on the Southeast Asian nation ahead of presidential elections next year.
The abductors freed 18 hostages, including 17 children, on Thursday.
The Mindanao region is full of bandits, communist guerrillas and Islamic rebels. Powerful local families maintain large private armies and feuding among them is common.
Last month, 57 people, including 30 journalists, were killed after they were stopped at a checkpoint in Maguindanao province, also in the southern Philippines, while on their way to file a candidate’s nomination for elections next year.
The killings led to the imposition of martial law in Maguindanao last week.
Josefina Bajade, head of the government negotiating group, said the hostage takers had demanded that murder cases against them be dropped. They have also asked police to disarm rivals from the same tribe.
“They allowed these nine people to go home with me as a sign of goodwill,” Bajade told Reuters by phone from a mountain trail near Prosperidad town in Agusan del Sur province.
“I am confident we can get them all back to their families in a few days. What’s more important is that we’re talking and we’re trying to resolve the problem peacefully.”
Clan wars, known locally as “rido,” are common in the south.
Studies funded by the Asia Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development in 2007 found there had been more than 1,200 clan feuds in the south since the 1930s, killing nearly 5,000 people and displacing tens of thousands.