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Philippines checking reports Red Cross hostages alive

The Philippines military said on Thursday that it is trying to contact the kidnappers of three Red Cross workers threatened with beheading after Italy's foreign minister said they were still alive.

Italy's Ansa news agency quoted Foreign Minister Franco Frattini as saying that the three -- an Italian, a Swiss and a Filipina -- "are alive according to information in our possession."

The kidnappers, a group of Islamic militants responsible for some of the country's worst attacks, had threatened to behead one of the hostages this week after a deadline for the withdrawal of government forces expired on Tuesday.

But Frattini suggested Rome had been in contact with the Italian hostage, Eugenio Vagni, since the deadline lapsed, and received assurances that he, Swiss Andreas Notter and Filipina Mary Jean Lacaba, were all alive.

Philippine military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ernesto Torres told AFP he had received no confirmation the hostages were alive.

But he said the ANSA report chimed with information received by the Philippines government suggesting the hostages had not been harmed.

Provincial governor Abdusakur Tan meanwhile said authorities on the southern island of Jolo, where the hostages are being held, have not been able to restore contact with the kidnappers.

The Red Cross was also unable to confirm the Italian report. It said it had been unable to contact the hostages this week.

The Abu Sayyaf, the group holding the aid workers, had said they would behead one of them unless Philippine troops effectively ceded control 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.

But Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said local religious leaders had prevailed upon the kidnappers 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.

The three were abducted on Jolo on January 15 during a humanitarian mission.

Abu Sayyaf was founded in the 1990s, allegedly with funds from Al Qaeda, and has been blamed for bombings and kidnappings across the Philippines.

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 into a 15 square-kilometre (six square-mile) 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 added.

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Publication:AFP Asian Edition
Date:Apr 2, 2009
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