ASG to release one hostage — Gordon

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — THE Abu Sayyaf Group has agreed to release one of three kidnapped aid workers following deadly clashes with advancing troops, a Red Cross official said yesterday.

Senator Richard Gordon, Philippine National Red Cross president, told AFP the military was preparing to “reposition” its troops in Jolo, Sulu to allow for a transfer to take place.

Gordon said he secured the commitment to free one hostage from Abu Sayyaf leader Albader Parad late Wednesday, prompting him to hold emergency meetings with top defence and military officials.

“The military is going to redeploy out of the area so one of our associates can get out,” Gordon said.

“Soon as they pull out, the ICRC individual is going to go out,” he added, referring to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

He said it was unclear which of the ICRC workers — Mary Jean Lacaba of the Philippines, Andreas Notter of Switzerland and Eugenio Vagni of Italy — would be first out but it would be the one most in need of medical attention.

Previous reports have said Vagni, 62, has a heart condition.

Gordon said it was also unclear when the actual handover would take place, but stressed troops were now preparing to move.

He added that as soon as one hostage is freed, a former Muslim separatist leader would act as a negotiator for further talks to get the other two out.

“We don’t want any more incidents to happen that will thwart” the release, Gordon said.

The Abu Sayyaf, or “bearers of the sword,” is the smallest but most radical of several Islamic militant groups in the southern Philippines.

Set up with funds from the Al-Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden, it has been accused of the worst terror attacks in the Philippines, including a February 2004 ferry bombing in Manila which claimed more than 100 lives.

It is on the U.S. government’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.

The group has kidnapped dozens of foreigners over the years and is blamed for the deaths of two Americans seized at a resort in 2001, one of whom was beheaded.

In a statement, the military said it had agreed to reposition its forces, but stressed it would not pull out totally from the jungle where the hostages are being kept.

“The safety of the ICRC workers remains the paramount concern,” it added, “and if to ensure this we must adjust our deployment, then we will do so.”

It promised to “reposition our troops as necessary to allow the exhaustion of other peaceful means for the safe release of victims.”

Troops have been closing in on the Abu Sayyaf group, resulting in two days of clashes Monday and Tuesday which left three Marines and two militants dead and 19 soldiers wounded.

The military believes one of those injured among the militants was Parad, whose group snatched the ICRC workers while they were on a mission on Jolo on January 15.

Gordon had earlier chastised the military for conducting what he called an ill-conceived rescue operation that had put the hostages’ lives in danger.