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Veteran Middle East TV reporter, 2 Filipino crew missing in Philippines

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MANILA, Philippines - A veteran Middle Eastern TV reporter who had interviewed Osama bin Laden months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has disappeared with four other people on a restive southern Philippine island where Muslim militants are active, officials said Friday.

Baker Atyani, Al-Arabiya's TV bureau chief for Southeast Asia, has not contacted authorities since Tuesday, when he was last seen on Jolo Island while on a reporting trip, said Sulu provincial police chief Antonio Freyra.

Also missing are two Manila-based TV crewmen, a local female guide and the driver of the journalists' van, Freyra said.

Authorities were trying to verify unconfirmed reports that Atyani may have travelled to Jolo's mountainous jungles to seek an interview with Abu Sayyaf militants and some of their foreign hostages as part of a TV documentary on the southern Philippines, a military intelligence official told The Associated Press. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.

Atyani and his crew arrived Monday in Jolo, a hotbed of militants notorious for bomb attacks, kidnappings and beheadings about 950 kilometres (590 miles) south of Manila.

Freyra said the three men left their Jolo hostel early Tuesday and were picked up by a minivan. They failed to show up for Philippine Independence Day rites later that day despite telling officials they would cover the event.

"We don't know if he has been kidnapped. We don't know their objective here," Jolo Mayor Hussin Amin told the AP by phone. "He's been declared missing for now."

A Filipino TV reporter, Ces Drilon, was planning to interview leaders of the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf group on Jolo in 2008 when the group held her ransom for 10 days.

The militants on Jolo are holding two Europeans and a Japanese. There are conflicting reports whether an Indian hostage has died in captivity.

Atyani, a 43-year-old Jordanian based in Jakarta, Indonesia, was working for the Arabic satellite channel Middle East Broadcasting Corp. in June 2001 when he met bin Laden and his aides in Afghanistan and said they told him that the coming weeks would hold "important surprises that will target American and Israeli interests in the world."

He later moved to Dubai-based Al-Arabiya TV as its Asia bureau chief.

Amin expressed fear for the journalists' safety even though Atyani was an experienced reporter.

"Well, he doesn't know what he got into this time. These gunmen are bandits and drug addicts. They can enter but it's uncertain if they can exit," Amin said.

Abu Sayyaf militants have launched more attacks in the last four years despite U.S.-backed offensives on Jolo and neighbouring islands. Authorities have failed to cut off a flow of money, food and weapons to the terrorists, the Philippine military said in a recent report.

The Abu Sayyaf is a more radical offshoot of a Muslim rebellion that has been raging in the predominantly Catholic nation's south for decades. The violence is fueled by abject poverty, corruption and proliferation of weapons.

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