- The Washington Times - Monday, March 30, 2009

MANILA, PHILIPPINES (AP) - Pope Benedict XVI appealed Monday for al-Qaida-linked militants to free three Red Cross hostages after their captors threatened to behead one of them unless government troops withdraw.

The militants set a Tuesday deadline for soldiers to quit the extremists’ jungle stronghold on a southern Philippines island.

Abu Sayyaf commander Albader Parad threatened to behead one of the hostages _ two Europeans and a Filipino _ Tuesday unless police and militiamen leave 15 villages on Jolo island, Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said.

“Their demands as of last night are physically impossible to comply with,” Puno told reporters, adding that officials will continue to seek ways to save the hostages “up to the last minute.”

Puno hinted the government was ready to use force if any of the hostages are harmed by the Muslim militant group. Some 120 gunmen have held the aid workers in a hilly jungle in Jolo’s Indanan town for about 10 weeks. Until a recent withdrawal, they were surrounded by more than 1,000 troops.



“If we’re talking of brute force, of course we can do something,” Puno said.

Conceding to militant demands, the marines withdrew to their camp last week, and police and militiamen moved back from the Abu Sayyaf stronghold by six to nine miles (10-15 kilometers), hoping the group would release one hostage.

But the militants insisted the troops must pull back to two villages near the provincial capital _ a demand the government says would lead to anarchy.

At the Vatican on Monday, the pope appealed for the release of the hostages, urging that “humanitarian sense and reason win out over violence and intimidation.” He called for authorities to work for a peaceful solution.

The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross reiterated his appeals for the freedom of Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba, Swiss Andreas Notter and Italian Eugenio Vagni.

“Our message to Abu Sayyaf is: Please spare and release Mary Jean, Eugenio and Andreas,” said Jakob Kellenberger. “All they were doing was helping people in need in your area. There is no ideology or religious law that could justify killing them.”

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s spokesman, Cerge Remonde, also said he hoped “these bandits have a sense of humanity” and release the hostages.

The hostages were seized Jan. 15 after visiting a water project for a jail on Jolo, a predominantly Muslim region about 590 miles (950 kilometers) south of Manila.

The Abu Sayyaf 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 writer Hrvoje Hranjski contributed to this report.

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