The governor of Jolo island declared a state of emergency yesterday authorizing him to order an attack on al-Qaeda-linked militants after a deadline expired for the execution of one of three Red Cross hostages.
Governor Sakur Tan signed the order allowing him to declare the search and seizure operations including arrests in the pursuit of Abu Sayyaf kidnappers and their supporters.
It was not immediately clear if an attack was imminent, but the order comes after the militants ignored pleas to release Filipina Mary Jean Lacaba, Italian Eugenio Vagni and Andreas Notter of Switzerland and threatened to behead one of them.
There was no word from the Abu Sayyaf about the fate of the hostages, who have been held since Jan. 15, after yesterday’s deadline expired.
The head of the Philippine Red Cross made a last-minute appeal to Abu Sayyaf to spare the hostages.
“The whole family of the Red Cross prays for you and I’m proud of the way you’ve comported yourself,” Senator Richard Gordon said on nationwide television, his voice breaking and wiping away tears as he mentioned the names of the captives. “I’m sorry, I should be stronger than you because I’m not in midst of the ordeal you’re in now.”
“The decision of the group is to behead if there will be no pullout,” Abu Sayyaf commander Abu Ali said in a cellphone text message early yesterday from the militant jungle stronghold on Jolo island.
“There will be no extension of the deadline for the pullout and we have no plan to release any hostage if there will be no pullout,” he said.
Philippine Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said on Monday it was impossible for the government to vacate 15 Jolo villages by 2pm yesterday as demanded by the militants a day earlier. He said there was not enough time and that a wider pullout would leave the island’s civilian population exposed to militant attacks.
Puno hinted that the government could use force if the militants harmed any of the hostages.
Some 120 gunmen have held the aid workers in a hilly jungle in Jolo’s Indanan town since Jan. 15.
Until a recent withdrawal, they were surrounded by more than 1,000 troops.
At the Vatican on Monday, the pope appealed for the release of the hostages, urging that “humanitarian sense and reason win out over violence and intimidation.”
He called for authorities to work for a peaceful solution.
The hostages were seized after visiting a water project for a jail on Jolo, a predominantly Muslim region about 950km south of Manila.
The Abu Sayyaf group has beheaded hostages in the past, including an American in 2001 and seven Filipinos in 2007.