- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

MANILA, PHILIPPINES (AP) - A Filipino Red Cross worker freed by al-Qaida-linked militants Thursday after 10 weeks of captivity in a southern Philippine jungle told a government official that the remaining Swiss and Italian hostages were alive but tired and in danger.

The unexpected release of Mary Jean Lacaba and news that her colleagues have not been killed came after the Abu Sayyaf militants threatened to behead one of the hostages on Tuesday because Philippine forces refused to withdraw from the surrounding area.

Abu Sayyaf gunmen handed over the 37-year-old Lacaba in the jungles near Indanan township on Jolo Island without any ransom payment, government negotiator Lady Anne Sahidulla said.

Lacaba was taken in a wheelchair to a Jolo military hospital, looking weak and confused amid the frenzy over her release. Wearing a red Muslim head scarf known as a hijab, she held a flashlight and talked on a cell phone. Doctors gave her a bowl of porridge before giving her a checkup.

“Thank you so much, sir. I’ve cried so many times,” Sen. Richard Gordon, the head of the local Red Cross, quoted her as telling him on the phone shortly after her release.

Gordon said she asked him to press the military to ease operations because the remaining hostages _ Italian Eugenio Vagni and Andreas Notter from Switzerland _ “were very, very tired and suffering so much.”

The hostages survived through two deadly jungle clashes between the militants and government forces.

“This is the answer to our people’s prayers,” President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said.

Alain Aeschlimann, a Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross official, renewed an appeal for the unconditional release of Vagni and Notter, saying “the nightmare of this abduction is not over.”

Gordon urged the Abu Sayyaf captors not to harm the remaining hostages, one of whom now walks with a cane. “I’m appealing to them not to harm them and I also appeal to the military also to take it slowly and let’s not act if it’s dangerous.”

The three aid workers were seized Jan. 15 after visiting a Red Cross water sanitation project at the Jolo provincial jail.

After holding them for more than two months, the Abu Sayyaf threatened this week to behead a hostage unless troops withdrew by Tuesday from most of the predominantly Muslim province of Sulu, which includes Jolo Island. The government said it had already pulled back some forces and could not comply.

As the Abu Sayyaf deadline passed, Jolo Gov. Sakur Tan declared a state of emergency on the island, redeploying troops closer to the militant camp, and negotiations behind the scenes gathered pace.

Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said earlier that Jolo Rep. Yusop Jikiri, a former Muslim rebel commander with extensive connections among the militants, talked with Abu Sayyaf commander Abu Pula on Tuesday but failed to win the hostages’ release.

Puno said the focus of government efforts was to make sure that kidnappers “head back in the direction of negotiation with anyone.” Pope Benedict XVI appealed Monday for the hostages’ release and called on Philippine authorities to work for a peaceful solution.

The Abu Sayyaf group has beheaded hostages in the past, including an American in 2001 as well as seven Filipinos in 2007.

The U.S. government has placed the Abu Sayyaf, which has about 400 gunmen, on its list of terrorist organizations.

___

Associated Press writers Hrvoje Hranjski and Oliver Teves contributed to this report.

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