Fri, Apr 03, 2009 - Page 5 News List

Red Cross says fate of Philippines hostages unknown

AFP , MANILA

A senior Red Cross official said yesterday there was no news on the fate of the agency’s three workers kidnapped in the Philippines by Islamic militants who have threatened to behead them.

The Abu Sayyaf guerrillas had said they would behead one of the trio unless Philippine troops effectively ceded control of the island of Jolo, where the army has been battling the militants, by March 31.

The military made a partial withdrawal from five towns but refused to go further. The regional operations chief for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Alain Aeschlimann, said he had no new word on the captives’ fate.

“We continue to hope that the worst did not happen and will not happen,” Aeschlimann said in an interview posted on the ICRC Web site. “We have taken note of reports that the kidnappers’ threat was not carried out.”

Philippine Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said the authorities were trying to re-establish contact with the kidnappers, who he insisted had been prevailed upon by local religious leaders not to carry out their threat.

“Our focus is on trying to make sure that these kidnappers will get back in the direction of negotiations,” he told a local television station.

Andreas Notter of Switzerland, Eugenio Vagni of Italy and Mary Jean Lacaba of the Philippines were abducted on the southern island of Jolo on January 15 by the Abu Sayyaf group.

Founded in the 1990s, allegedly with funds from al-Qaeda, Abu Sayyaf has been blamed for bombings and kidnappings across the Philippines.

Pope Benedict XVI issued a last-minute appeal for the lives of the hostages, as did the governments of Italy and Switzerland.

With a population of around 650,000, Jolo is home mainly to Muslims in the south of the overwhelmingly Catholic Philippines.

Puno said the kidnappers are penned in a 15km² area of Jolo.

“It is raining hard [there] and they cannot get away too far from that because it is the only source of water in the area,” he said.

Meanwhile, Singapore said yesterday it was talking with Manila about reports a suspected Singaporean extremist was acting on behalf of the kidnappers.

“We have been in touch and working with the Philippine authorities on this issue. We are unable to disclose any other details,” the Philippine Ministry of Home Affairs said in a brief statement.

Puno said on Wednesday the Singaporean militant had served as an interpreter for the Abu Sayyaf as it negotiated with the ICRC and the government.

Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper said the militant may have been Muawiyah, an Indian-Singaporean extremist who uses the alias Manobo and who is suspected to have links with Jemaah Islamiyah.

That group has been blamed for deadly bombings in Indonesia, and Western intelligence agencies say some Jemaah fugitives may have found refuge in the southern Philippines.

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