Philippine Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno announced Saturday that he would withdraw troops from a jungle area in response to a demand by Abu Sayyaf rebels who have taken three Red Cross Workers and threatened them with beheading.
AFP - The Philippines has agreed to move troops from a southern jungle area in a bid to save three kidnapped Red Cross workers threatened with beheading, an official said Saturday.
Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said the troop withdrawal demanded by the kidnappers should be completed within 36 hours, clearing the path for one of the three International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) staff to be freed.
Puno said about 600 to 800 police and pro-government militiamen who have cordoned off the jungle area where the hostages are believed to be would pull back to allow the kidnappers to release them.
"We have decided to remove the portion of the cordon surrounding them," Puno told reporters in the southern city of Zamboanga, adding the pull-out would begin later Saturday.
"I think we are more than bending over backwards in order that the kidnappers will not feel threatened."
Members of the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic militant group the Abu Sayyaf seized Filipina Mary Jean Lacaba, Swiss national Andreas Notter and Italian Eugenio Vagni on the southern island of Jolo on January 15.
Abu Sayyaf leader Albader Parad has threatened to behead one of them unless the military withdraws from the area by Monday, but said one would go free if the demand was met.
Saturday's announcement represents a major turnaround for the government, coming just a day after Puno himself declared there was "no possibility" it would give in to the rebels' demands.
Hours later, the head of the ICRC issued a rare public appeal for the gunmen to unconditionally free the hostages.
The ICRC rarely speaks out on political issues for fear of jeopardising its neutrality.
"I am asking for their safe, unconditional and immediate release," Kellenberger said in a statement late Friday.
"It is impossible to understand what the kidnappers could possibly achieve by hurting them."
Earlier Friday, local television station ABS-CBN television broadcast fresh footage of the hostages looking haggard. It was not clear when the images were filmed, but the broadcaster said it was proof that the three remained alive.
Puno said Saturday the police officers would return to barracks some 15 kilometers (10 miles) away from the jungle area, while the Marines had already been repositioned.
"We are also asking them (the kidnappers) to comply with their earlier promise as a sign of good faith," he said.
Puno stressed that troops would not leave the island altogether, but would continue to secure towns and villages there.
Parad's group tried to break through the cordon early this month, triggering clashes that left three Marines dead and 19 others wounded.
The militant leader was also wounded in the clashes, although he has defiantly taunted the troops in calls to radio and television stations the past week.
Founded in the 1990s by Afghan-trained firebrand Abubakar Abdurajak Janjalani to fight for an independent Islamic state, the Abu Sayyaf is the smallest, but most radical of Muslim groups in the southern Philippines.
Abdurajak was killed in a clash with police in 1998 and the group degenerated into a terrorist organisation specialising in bombings, extortion and high profile kidnappings.
It is blamed for the country's worst terrorist attacks, and is believed to have established links with the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) group. The group has been known to behead its captives.
Date created : 2009-03-28