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State of emergency imposed on Jolo island over Red Cross hostages

Latest update : 2009-03-31

Filipino authorities have imposed a state of emergency on the restive island of Jolo where an Islamic militant group has threatened to kill one of the Red Cross hostages it holds.

AFP - Authorities in the Philippines declared a state of emergency Tuesday on the restive island of Jolo after the expiry of a deadline by Islamic militants threatening to behead a Red Cross hostage.

The deadline passed at 0600 GMT but there was no information as to whether the Abu Sayyaf gunmen holding a total of three Red Cross workers hostage had carried out their threat.

Pope Benedict XVI issued a last-minute appeal for their lives, as did the Red Cross, but the government and military have resolutely refused to bow to the militants' ultimatum to withdraw all troops from five towns on Jolo.

As the deadline expired, Jolo governor Abdusakur Tan issued a proclamation authorising police action against the militants, restricting the movement of civilians and imposing a curfew on the southern island of about 645,000 people.

"Governor Tan has declared a state of emergency," Lieutenant Colonel Edgard Arevalo, spokesman for the Marines on Jolo, told reporters.

Asked later whether the order meant a full-scale assault was to be carried out, Tan told AFP: "That will be the action against the Abu Sayyaf, against terrorism and their cohorts."

He added that fresh negotiations were unlikely at this stage.

Filipina Mary Jean Lacaba, Andreas Notter of Switzerland and Eugenio Vagni of Italy were abducted on Jolo on January 15 during a humanitarian mission.

The government had earlier given in to a rebel demand and completed a tactical retreat from the sprawling jungle area controlled by the Abu Sayyaf.

Agreeing to withdraw all troops from the five towns would however restrict Philippine forces to a small area near Jolo's capital, and would leave residents vulnerable to attacks.

Jakob Kellenberger, who heads the International Committee of the Red Cross, urged the Abu Sayyaf to free the three ICRC workers.

"Our message to Abu Sayyaf is: please spare and release Mary Jean, Eugenio and Andreas," he said an appeal issued in Manila and Geneva.

"All they were doing was helping people in need in your area. There is no ideology or religious law that could justify killing them."

The ICRC appeal came shortly after Pope Benedict also called on the gunmen to free their captives.

The pope "wants to raise his voice and urge that humanitarian sensibility and reason prevail over violence and intimidation," the Vatican said.

Senator Richard Gordon, who heads the local Red Cross chapter, said he last made contact with Abu Sayyaf leader Albader Parad an hour before the deadline expired. He said he had also dispatched an emissary to the rebel hideout to convince them to stay the execution.

"They told us they will not back out from the threat," Gordon said on national television, his voice choking with emotion and eyes welling with tears.

"This may the first time in the Red Cross' 150-year history that a volunteer may be executed or beheaded."

The Philippine Daily Inquirer quoted Parad as saying that he had told the hostages of their fate.

"They know what will happen, that is why they don't want to eat," the paper quoted him as saying in a telephone interview. "They are silent and sometimes they would cry."

"Their hands and feet are tied. They're in one place," Parad said.

Founded in the 1990s to lead the struggle for an independent Islamic state, the Abu Sayyaf is the smallest -- but most radical -- of various Muslim groups in the southern Philippines.

Its founder was killed in a clash with police in 1998, and the group then degenerated into a terrorist organisation specialising in bombings, extortion and high-profile kidnappings.

Date created : 2009-03-31