Three gunmen and 12 hostages left a bus in the southern &to=http:// english.pravda.ru/hotspots/2001/11/24/21853.html ' target=_blank>Philippines on Wednesday and were being driven to a nearby city by a bishop trying to negotiate an end to the stand-off, a television station reported.
The hostages are nine women and three children.
Police suspect the hijackers, armed with pistols and hand grenades, are criminals from a local gang rather than communist or Muslim rebels who have strongholds on the island of Mindanao.
The gunmen were among passengers on the bus but may have panicked when it was stopped at an army checkpoint on Tuesday and all the men aboard were told to disembark, police said. The only demand had been a getaway vehicle, they added.
One of the hijackers, identifying himself as "Jun", claimed they were members of the communist New People's Army, radio and television stations reported.
Bishop Emmanuel Cabajar was driving a pick-up truck loaded with the &to=http:// english.pravda.ru/accidents/21/96/382/14036_school.html ' target=_blank>hostages and the gunmen, who were wearing ski masks, a reporter for ABS-CBN said on live television from the scene.
Cabajar and local officials had been negotiating with the gunmen, including an offer by the bishop that he would drive them in his car in exchange for the hostages.
Police had said they were willing to provide a vehicle but ruled out Cabajar driving it. The gunmen, who initially took 16 hostages when the male passengers disembarked at the checkpoint, had freed a 6-year-old girl after hours of talks on Tuesday.
The driver, his assistant and a female passenger escaped during the night, police said.
Security forces allowed the air-conditioned bus to leave the checkpoint on Tuesday night after the gunmen threatened the hostages. But it got stuck in a ditch near the town of Labangan, officials said.