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Philippines worried about ailing Italian hostage

Jim Gomez Associated Press Writer 21.04.2009 20:30
Muslim residents and members of the Philippine Red Cross hold the pictures of kidnapped International Red Cross workers, from left, Filipino Jean Lacaba, Italian Eugenio Vagni and Swiss Andreas Notter, during an interfaith prayer rally in downtown Manila, Philippines on Sunday March 29, 2009. Al-Qaida-linked militants who have threatened to behead three Red Cross hostages rejected a limited pullout of government forces in exchange for the release of one of the captives, an official said. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

Muslim residents and members of the Philippine Red Cross hold the pictures of kidnapped International Red Cross workers, from left, Filipino Jean Lacaba, Italian Eugenio Vagni and Swiss Andreas Notter, during an interfaith prayer rally in downtown Manila, Philippines on Sunday March 29, 2009. Al-Qaida-linked militants who have threatened to behead three Red Cross hostages rejected a limited pullout of government forces in exchange for the release of one of the captives, an official said. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)


MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine government has deployed more troops to help secure the re-lease of an ailing Italian aid worker held by al-Qaida-linked militants amid concerns for his health, officials said Sunday, after two hostages walked free from months of harsh jungle captivity.



Police and armed villagers found Swiss Andreas Notter on Saturday walking with a cane near a road in Indianan township on southern Jolo Island, after he apparently escaped or was abandoned by his Abu Sayyaf captors, Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro said.

 

Abu Sayyaf militants freed Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba on April 2. Italian Eugenio Vagni, the last of the three International Committee of the Red Cross workers who were kidnapped January 15, remains in the hands of the gunmen in Indianan’s humid jungle.

 

"The fact that he's struggling with hypertension and hernia is a red fag for us," Teodoro told The Associated Press. "We're moving with a sense of immediacy and intensifying our efforts to secure his freedom as soon as possible."

 

More than 1,000 marines, police and armed village guards will continue surrounding a jungle stronghold near Indianan to exert pressure on the militants holding Vagni, while a group of Muslim clerics tries to negotiate his release, Teodoro said.

 

Senior Superintendent Julasirim Kasim, chief of police of Sulu province, which includes Jolo, said more police forces have sent in to strengthen the security cordon around the Indianan jungle where Vagni was being held. He declined to provide other details but other officials said the additional forces included a special commando unit.

 

The 62-year-old Vagni's health condition is a key factor in efforts to free him, the military said.

 

"Ironically, this same medical condition that compels the terrorist group to keep an eye on him all the time (is) a reason why he may not be as lucky and quick as Notter to seize the chance to escape," the military said in a statement.

 

Sporting a beard and visibly thinner, Notter was turned over by Philippine officials to Red Cross officers in Sulu Gov. Sakur Tan's heavily guarded residence, where he had a lunch of rice, fish, chicken and lobster.

 

Notter thanked officials and urged them to work to secure Vagni's safe release. But he refused to provide information to military officials and underwent a "debriefing", citing the Red Cross' bedrock policy of neutrality, Teodoro said.

 

"All my concerns are now with my companion, Mr. Eugenio Vagni," Notter told a news conference in Jolo on Saturday.

 

He was later flown to the southern port city of Davao, said Sen. Richard Gordon, who heads the local Red Cross.

 

Tan declared a state of emergency last month on Jolo, an impoverished Muslim region 590 miles (950 kilometers) south of Manila, after the militants threatened to behead the Red Cross hostages.

 

The Abu Sayyaf, which has about 400 fighters, is on a U.S. list of terrorist groups for receiving funding and training from al-Qaida militants and for its involvement in high profile kidnappings, beheadings and deadly bomb attacks.



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