Army troops clashed with Abu Sayyaf Islamic militants who were holding a sick Italian Red Cross worker hostage in the southern Philippines, military sources said. Police believe Eugenio Vagni, 62, may have been abandoned by his captors.
AFP - Troops clashed with Islamic militants holding a sick Italian Red Cross worker hostage in the southern Philippines, as the crisis entered its 99th day Thursday, the military said.
There were no immediate details of casualties and no word on the fate of Eugenio Vagni, 62, who intelligence reports earlier said was unable to walk due to a hernia and who police fear may have been abandoned.
The fighting took place Wednesday as Abu Sayyaf militants who had kidnapped Vagni tried to escape from a jungle area on the island of Jolo, military spokesman Brigadier General Gaudencio Pangilinan told reporters in Manila.
"It was a big group, about 50 of them," Pangilinan said of the Abu Sayyaf unit, adding they were carrying high-powered firearms including rocket launchers.
Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno confirmed fighting had taken place and said troops had set up blockades near Jolo's coastal villages to prevent the Abu Sayyaf from escaping by sea.
National police chief Director General Jesus Versoza said authorities suspected Vagni may have been abandoned by his captors, and offered a 500,000 peso (10,416 dollars) reward for information leading to his recovery.
"We are really concerned now on the present state of health of Mr Vagni," Versoza said.
Officials said the rebels were trying to reach the town of Talipao, where they were said to be planning to merge with a bigger Abu Sayyaf command entrenched in the area.
Vagni was abducted in mid January along with fellow International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) colleagues Andreas Notter of Switzerland and Mary Jean Lacaba of the Philippines while on a humanitarian mission.
Lacaba was released on April 2 while Notter was safely recovered by authorities on April 18.
There have also been fears that the increasingly desperate Abu Sayyaf group may try to harm Vagni as they evade troops in the jungle.
The Geneva-based ICRC said Wednesday it was "extremely worried" for Vagni and repeated a call for his immediate and unconditional release.
Notter, who also spoke at the press conference, said he last saw Vagni on April 16, the day the militants separated them and moved in smaller groups.
He said it rained constantly in the tropical jungle and the harsh conditions had taken their toll physically and mentally.
"I am very concerned about my colleague, Eugenio Vagni, particularly because of his health," Notter said. "He has a hernia, which is making it difficult for him to walk."
In an intelligence report Wednesday, the military said Vagni was unable to walk and was being carried by his captors.
The Abu Sayyaf was founded in the 1990s ostensibly to fight for an independent Islamic state. The group later branched off into high-profile abductions and bombings and is on the US government's list of wanted foreign terrorist organisations.
Date created : 2009-04-23