Islamic militants and Philippine troops were locked in a tense stand-off Tuesday as the Red Cross issued a fresh appeal to spare three of its workers held hostage since January.
Abu Sayyaf militants had given the government until 2:00 pm (0600 GMT) Tuesday to withdraw all its troops from five towns on the southern island of Jolo or they would behead one hostage.
But government has said the demand was impossible, stressing it has already completed a tactical retreat as earlier demanded from a sprawling jungle area where the Abu Sayyaf have held Filipina Mary Jean Lacaba, Andreas Notter of Switzerland and Eugenio Vagni of Italy since January 15.
Agreeing to the move would mean that government forces would be restricted to a small area near Jolo's capital, leaving them and the island's half a million population highly vulnerable to further attacks, the government said.
International Committee of the Red Cross chief Jakob Kellenberger again called on the Abu Sayyaf to free the three ICRC workers, saying they were on Jolo island for a humanitarian mission.
"Our message to Abu Sayyaf is: please spare and release Mary Jean, Eugenio and Andreas," Kellenberger said an appeal issued in Manila and Geneva overnight.
"All they were doing was helping people in need in your area. There is no ideology or religious law that could justify killing them," he added.
The ICRC appeal came shortly after Pope Benedict XVI called on the gunmen to free the captives.
The pontiff "wants to raise his voice and urge that humanitarian sensibility and reason prevail over violence and intimidation," the Vatican said in a statement Monday.
Members of the crisis management team working to free the hostages were not answering calls early Tuesday. Radio reports quoting official sources however said that the team's head, Jolo governor Abdusakur Tan, held a dawn meeting with military officers to prepare for any eventuality.
Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) sub-commander Albader Parad issued fresh threats to the military on Monday, after the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) allegedly failed to honor the group’s demand for a “total pullout.”
“Yung sinabi nila parang hindi totoo kasi hindi namin nakita dito sa field na totally pull[ed] out [ang military]. Hindi totoo yun, wala kaming nakikita na pullout na sinasabi,” Parad said in an exclusive phone interview with ABS-CBN news anchor Ces Drilon.
The ASG had demanded that the military pull back their troops, as well as forces of the Philippine National Police and police auxiliaries, from areas in Sulu island in exchange for the freedom of one of the kidnapped International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) workers.
Parad claimed that the Civilian Volunteers Organization (CVO) and the Philippine Marines have removed only one detachment each, and that there are still military contingents visible on the island.
Parad said the military must clear all troops from Tagbak, Santol, Indanan, and Patikul by 2 p.m. on Tuesday or else they will behead one of the hostages. He said the deadline was non-negotiable.
“Wala naman kaming pakialam sa sinabi [ni ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger]. Kapag hindi namin nakikita yung [total] pullout na pinagusapan… Makikita nila kung ano ang ginagawa namin, magpupugot kami ng ulo,” he said.
The rebel commander assured, however, that if the troops concede, they will release one of the hostages. The group, however, refused to specify which of the hostages they would release.
Puno visits Zambo
Interior and Local Government Secretary Ronaldo Puno visited Zamboanga City again on Monday afternoon for a meeting with Sulu Governor Sakur Tan together and top military and police officials in connection with the ICRC kidnapping crisis.
Media were barred from getting footages of Puno's arrival at the airport including his meeting and even his departure back to Manila on board a private plane at past 5 p.m..
Tan refused to give any statement on what transpired in their meeting.
Government is reportedly trying to get confirmation from the ASG reqarding their promise to release one of the ICRC workers.
On Monday, Puno said it was impossible to comply with the latest demand of kidnappers holding three Red Cross workers to empty five southern towns of security forces by Monday night.
The al Qaeda-linked Islamic militant group Abu Sayyaf imposed the demand when it contacted government negotiators late on Sunday night, threatening to behead one of three hostages by 2 p.m. on March 31, Puno said.
"I don't know how they can be serious if they are saying that we should evacuate all of these areas within 24 hours and then schedule a beheading at 2 p.m. tomorrow," Puno told reporters in Manila.
"Frankly, we are very disheartened by these new demands, which were given late last night, and which clearly has no physical possibility of being complied with."
The government complied earlier this month to two demands to move back the security cordon around them. But Puno said those decisions were not a sign of Manila's weakness in dealing with the militants.
"Our highest priority is the safety of the three hostages," Puno said as he appealed to the rebel leaders to rethink their new demand and the March 31 deadline.
By Sunday, nearly 1,500 soldiers, police officers and armed civilian volunteers had moved back by about 15 km (9 miles) from the rebels' position in the interior of southern Jolo island.
Now the rebels want the government to move all security forces out of five towns in the west of the island where the Abu Sayyaf, Puno added.
The rebels have been holding Swiss national Andreas Notter, Italian Eugenio Vagni and Filipina Mary Jean Lacaba -- workers of the International Committee of the Red Cross -- since Jan. 15.
Founded in the 1990s by Afghan-trained firebrand Abubakar Abdurajak Janjalani to fight for an independent Islamic state, the Abu Sayyaf is the smallest, but most radical of Muslim groups in the southern Philippines.
Abdurajak was killed in a clash with police in 1998 and the group degenerated into a terrorist organisation specialising in bombings, extortion and high profile kidnappings. -- with reports from CES DRILON, ABS-CBN News