MANILA, PHILIPPINES (AP) - The Philippine military agreed Thursday to pull back from a jungle stronghold of al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf extremists in exchange for a pledge of freedom for one of their Red Cross hostages, officials said.
The move comes after Abu Sayyaf commander Albader Parad threatened to kill the three Red Cross workers _ two Europeans and a Filipino _ he has been holding for more than two months if the military launches a new attack on his group near Indanan township on southern Jolo Island, Sen. Richard Gordon said.
“He told me he’ll behead one of the hostages if the new fighting erupts,” said Gordon, head of the Philippine Red Cross. “If the military will carry out an assault, he’ll kill all of them.”
Gordon said he convinced Parad by cell phone late Wednesday to promise to release a hostage if troops pull back from an Abu Sayyaf stronghold that has been surrounded by marines and armed village guards for weeks.
“We will reposition our troops as necessary to allow the exhaustion of other peaceful means for the safe release of the victims,” military spokesman Lt. Col. Ernesto Torres said in a statement.
He said the safety of the International Committee of the Red Cross workers _ Swiss Andreas Notter, Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba and Italian Eugenio Vagni _ “remains the paramount concern.”
Military chief Gen. Alexander Yano said he will order troops to move from their current positions once told to do so by civilian officials handling the hostage crisis, including Gordon.
It was not clear how far government forces would retreat, or if Parad’s group would release any captives. Withdrawal from near the encampment of long-wanted Abu Sayyaf leaders would be a high-stakes gamble for the U.S.-backed forces, who have been working for years to wipe out the brutal militant group.
The Abu Sayyaf, which has about 400 gunmen, is on a U.S. list of terrorist groups for its links to al-Qaida and involvement in kidnappings, beheadings and bombings.
Aside from Parad, marine officials said other key Abu Sayyaf commanders were seen in Indanan’s forested area. They include Abu Pula and Yassir Igasan, who are considered key commanders, and possibly some Indonesian radicals.
The Red Cross said Wednesday it was extremely worried about the threat and appealed to the kidnappers not to harm the hostages.
Clashes erupted between marines and the militants Monday and Tuesday, killing three marines and up to seven Abu Sayyaf gunmen, including one commander. The three hostages were not hurt, the military said.
Gordon said he was able to talk to all the hostages by phone Thursday.
“They’re going through a very difficult ordeal. You can feel the anguish, but their pride is still there,” Gordon said.