ZAMBOANGA - Islamic militants released a Filipina Red Cross aid worker Thursday, leaving a Swiss and an Italian still held captive, officials said.
Mary Jean Lacaba, one of three International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) aid workers in the southern Philippines, was freed 77 days after she was kidnapped along with two ICRC staff, Eugenio Vagni of Italy and Andreas Notter of Switzerland, on January 15.
A spokesman at ICRC headquarters in Geneva said Mary Jean Lacaba had been released by her captors on the island of Jolo at 9.00 pm local time, Thursday.
"Our staff have spoken to her on the phone, she appears to be in good health, although very tired and extremely worried for her two colleagues, Eugenio Vagni and Andreas Notter," ICRC spokesman Florian Westphal said in Geneva where the neutral humanitarian organisation is headquartered.
"When she was freed, they were alive," he added. "Although we're very happy that Ms. Lacaba will soon be back with her family, we remain very concerned for our other colleagues."
"There is a proof of life in that sense," Westphal said.
Nur-Ana Sahidulla, vice-governor of Sulu province covering Jolo, was among those who fetched Lacaba. She said the Filipina was the one targeted for beheading by the Abu Sayyaf rebel group.
"Probably with our prayers, they changed their minds," Sahidulla said in a radio interview.
The rebels had threatened to behead one of the hostages on Tuesday unless there was troop withdrawal from much of Jolo island. Officials ignored the demand.
"We are extremely happy. She appears to be in good health, albeit tired," Westphal said.
Lacaba's unexpected freedom came just two days after the Abu Sayyaf group apparently failed to carry out their threat to behead one of their hostages when the Philippine military refused to comply with their demand to cede Jolo to the gunmen.
The ICRC and the Manila government were left to wait anxiously after the kidnappers refused to let the captives contact their relatives and co-workers by telephone in the run-up to Tuesday's deadline and after it had passed.
Colonel Eugene Clemen, commander of a Philippine marine brigade in Sulu, told AFP he and the provincial governor of the Sulu group that included Sahidulla, picked up Lacaba from a location he would not disclose.
"She looked tired and haggard," Clemen said, refusing to provide other details.
"Right now she is resting. She is being attended to by doctors and she was able to talk to a colleague at the International Committee of the Red Cross and to her husband," said Lieutenant-General Nelson Allaga, the military commander for the region.
"God is generous with His blessings. He heeded the people's prayers for a peaceful resolution to our Sulu problem," President Gloria Arroyo's spokesman Cerge Remonde told reporters.
He urged the kidnappers to release the two remaining hostages.
"Let us continue to pray for the safe release of the two other hostages," Remonde added.
Abu Sayyaf was founded in the 1990s, allegedly with funds from Al Qaeda, and has been blamed for bombings and kidnappings across the Philippines.
They had said they would behead one of their captives unless Philippine troops effectively ceded control of Jolo, where the army has been battling the militants, by March 31.
The military made a partial withdrawal from five towns but refused to go further.
With a population of around 650,000, Jolo is home mainly to Muslims in the south of the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Philippines.
It was not immediately known what had convinced the kidnappers to release Lacaba. They had previously denied reports that they were seeking a ransom for her and Notter, 38, and Vagni, 62.
Hours before news of the release broke, the Italian government announced it had made contact with Vagni and learnt from him that all three hostages were alive.
Easier to get two?
Lacaba's release boosted hopes the other hostages could be freed soon.
"After we got one, it's now easier to get the two," Senator Richard Gordon, the Philippine National Red Cross chief, said in a television interview, claiming that no ransom had been given.
Wearing a Muslim head scarf, a blue jacket, and muddied rubber shoes, Lacaba was left by her captors in a remote village on the southern island of Jolo where local government and military officials then picked her up.
Lacaba was immediately brought to a military hospital and was fed with porridge and water.
The ICRC workers were abducted on Jan. 15 after a visit to a local prison where the Red Cross was funding a water project.
The Abu Sayyaf has kidnapped several other westerners over the past decade, many of whom were ransomed off for millions of dollars, according to the Philippine military.
They also murdered an American hostage, Guillermo Sobero, in 2001, while a second American, the Christian missionary Martin Burnham, was killed in a military attack the following year that led to the rescue of his wife, Gracia Burnham.
Small units of US military advisers are operating on Jolo to provide intelligence as well as counter-terrorist training to Filipino troops fighting the Abu Sayyaf.
The Abu Sayyaf, a small but violent militant group based on Jolo and the nearby island of Basilan, has been linked to the Southeast Asian regional militant network Jemaah Islamiah and to al Qaeda.
Abu Sayyaf has been blamed for the worst terrorist attack in the Philippines, the bombing of a ferry in Manila Bay in 2004 that killed 100 people. -- reports from AFP, Reuters