MANILA, Philippines (AP) - Al-Qaida-linked militants in the
southern Philippines said they will stick to a Tuesday deadline to
behead a Red Cross hostage unless government troops withdraw from
the area, raising stakes in the 10-week crisis despite appeals from
Pope Benedict XVI and others to free the three captives.
"The decision of the group is to behead if there will be no
pullout," Abu Sayyaf commander Abu Ali told The Associated Press
in a cell phone text message Tuesday from the militant jungle
stronghold on Jolo island.
"There will be no extension of the deadline for the pullout and
we have no plan to release any hostage if there will be no
pullout," he said.
Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said Monday it was impossible
for the government to vacate 15 Jolo villages by 2 p.m. Tuesday as
demanded by the militants a day earlier. He said there was not
enough time and that a wider pullout would leave the island's
civilian population exposed to militant attacks.
Puno hinted the government was ready to use force if the
militants harm any of the hostages. Some 120 gunmen have held the
aid workers - Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba, Swiss Andreas Notter and
Italian Eugenio Vagni - in a hilly jungle in Jolo's Indanan town
since Jan. 15. Until a recent withdrawal, they were surrounded by
more than 1,000 troops.
Conceding to earlier 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 hostages' freedom.
"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 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 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.