Swiss, Filipino, Italian hostages threatened

19th March 2009, Comments 0 comments

Filipino troops withdraw from the jungle in exchange for the freeing of one Red Cross hostage.

MANILA - Philippine troops agreed to pull back Thursday from a jungle stronghold of al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf extremists in exchange for a pledge by the militants to free one of three Red Cross hostages, officials said.

The move comes after Abu Sayyaf commander Albader Parad threatened to behead the Swiss, Italian and Filipino Red Cross workers he was holding since January if the military launched a new attack on his group near Indanan township on southern Jolo Island, Senator Richard Gordon said.

"He told me he'll behead one of the hostages if the new fighting erupts," said Gordon, head of the local Red Cross. "If the military will carry out an assault, he'll kill all of them."

Gordon said he convinced Parad in a mobile phone call late Wednesday to promise to release one of the hostages if troops pull back from an Abu Sayyaf stronghold that has been surrounded by marines and armed village guards for weeks.

"We will reposition our troops as necessary to allow the exhaustion of other peaceful means for the safe release of the victims," military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ernesto Torres said in a statement.

He said the safety of the International Committee of the Red Cross workers, Swiss Andreas Notter, Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba and Italian Eugenio Vagni, "remains the paramount concern."

It was not clear how far government forces would retreat, or if Parad's group would release any of the captives as promised. Any withdrawal from the encampment of Abu Sayyaf leaders will be a risk for US-backed forces, which worked for years to destroy the Abu Sayyaf network.

The Abu Sayyaf, comprised of about 400 gunmen, is on a US blacklist of terrorist organisations for its links to al-Qaida and involvement in kidnappings, beheadings and bombings.

Aside from Parad, marine officials said other key Abu Sayyaf commanders were seen in the Indanan forested area, which was blocked off by troops. They include Abu Pula and Yassir Igasan, who are considered key commanders, and possibly some Indonesian radicals.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said Wednesday it was extremely worried about the threat and appealed to the kidnappers not to harm the hostages.

Fighting began between marines and the militants Monday and Tuesday, killing three marines and up to seven Abu Sayyaf gunmen, including one commander. The three hostages were not hurt, the military said.

AP / Jim Gomez

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