Military keeps pressure on Red Cross kidnappers

Posted at 02/22/09 6:30 PM

The Philippines on Sunday vowed to keep up the pressure on Abu Sayyaf kidnappers holding three Red Cross staff hostage on southern Jolo island, refusing to withdraw troops who have cornered the gunmen.

Military chief Gen. Alexander Yano rejected appeals from the rebels to lift a security cordon around a four-square-kilometer (1.5-square-mile) area of jungle area where the kidnappers and their captives are now trapped.

"We have a range of options from the most benign to the most violent -- that is the final military option," Yano told reporters.

"We are dealing here with lives and one of our main objectives is really to safely recover the hostages alive."

The hostages -- Swiss national Andreas Notter, Italian Eugenio Vagni and Filipina Mary Jean Lacaba -- were abducted while on a humanitarian mission in January 15.

Last week, Vagni told a Manila radio station that they were "in a very difficult situation" with the gunmen said to be increasingly restless due to the tight military cordon.

But Yano said pulling out troops from the area could also slacken the pressure on the Abu Sayyaf, who last week traded heavy fire with troops that left eight soldiers wounded.

"We have to continue containing them so that we can address the problem in a smaller area," Yano said.

The kidnappers have not publicly demanded ransom in exchange for the release of the three hostages but have made certain political demands known, according to a local crisis team on Jolo.

Alain Aeschlimann, the International Committee of the Red Cross' (ICRC) Geneva-based head of operations for Asia, said they were in contact with the hostages last week and that all three remained together.

"It is paramount that they should remain out of harm's way and that any efforts to free them should in no way endanger their safety," Aeschlimann said in a statement on the ICRC's website.

Abu Sayyaf once received funding from Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network, and is also on the US list of foreign terrorist organizations.

The group has been blamed for the worst terror attacks in the Philippines, as well as for several high-profile kidnappings since 2000.