- The Washington Times - Friday, January 16, 2009

MANILA

U.S.-backed soldiers with night-vision goggles combed dense southern Philippine jungles Thursday in pursuit of kidnappers who dragged three Red Cross workers from their vehicle at gunpoint, in the country’s most high-profile kidnapping of foreigners in eight years.

An army general said they hoped to rescue the workers from Italy, Switzerland and the Philippines before they’re handed over to Muslim militants notorious for holding hostages for ransom.

The gunmen on motorcycles intercepted a vehicle carrying the three representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross on their way to Jolo airport on the southern island where al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf militants are known to hide.

The driver and two other Filipinos were released and reported the incident, Philippine National Red Cross Chairman Richard Gordon said.

Maj. Gen. Juancho Sabban, head of Jolo’s anti-terrorism task force, said their vehicle was found abandoned near mountainous Patikul town, the scene of many clashes between troops and Abu Sayyaf militants hiding in thick jungles.

The gunmen took the hostages into Patikul’s rain forest and headed toward nearby Indanan township, possibly to turn the hostages over to notorious Abu Sayyaf commander Albader Parad, Maj. Gen. Sabban said by telephone from Jolo.

Abu Sayyaf militants are notorious for beheading their hostages and are on a U.S. list of terrorist organizations with links to al Qaeda.

American counterterrorism troops were providing noncombat “assistance and advice” to Philippine forces, a U.S. military official said on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The kidnapped workers were identified as Swiss Andreas Notter, 38; Italian Eugenio Vagni, 62; and Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba, 37. They had traveled to Jolo to inspect water-sanitation projects in Jolo’s provincial jail and in nearby Maimbung township.

Maj. Gen. Sabban said the Red Cross workers had refused military escorts. The Red Cross says they cannot accept such offers because they are neutral.

It was the most high-profile kidnapping of foreigners since 2001, when Abu Sayyaf gunmen snatched nearly two dozen tourists from a resort, including three Americans. One was beheaded and the other was killed during a military rescue operation. The incident prompted Washington to deploy troops in the south starting in 2002, but they are barred from combat.

In 2000, Abu Sayyaf seized about 20 foreign tourists from Malaysia’s Sipadan resort and held them on Jolo for several months before they were released in exchange for millions of dollars, reportedly paid by Libya.

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