MANILA, Philippines – Philippine officials said Monday they were running out of options to save three Red Cross hostages threatened with beheading after Al Qaeda-linked captors rejected a limited pullout of government troops as insufficient.
The Abu Sayyaf militants holding a Swiss, an Italian and a Filipino on southern Jolo island for 2 1/2 months insisted that troops must withdraw from the entire island into just two villages near the provincial capital — a demand the government says would lead to anarchy.
"They're insisting on a total pullout," Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan told The Associated Press by telephone Sunday after talking to Abu Sayyaf commander Albader Parad. Parad has threatened to behead one of the hostages if troops did not leave by Tuesday.
"We pray to God the hostage takers will think of the ICRC workers," Tan told Radio DZRH on Monday, referring to the group's full name, the International Committee of the Red Cross.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's spokesman, Cerge Remonde, also said he hoped "these bandits have a sense of humanity" and will release the hostages.
Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno told reporters Saturday the government agreed to pull back troops from Indanan township, near the Abu Sayyaf positions, to demonstrate it has bent over backward to ensure the hostages' safety.
Philippine officials have agreed twice to pull back forces to give the militants 91 square miles of hilly jungle to maneuver near Indanan. But Tan said the militants wanted all of Jolo's troops, police and militiamen to be restricted to just two villages, a demand he called impossible.
Puno repeated a warning that he may consider resorting to force if the hostages are harmed.
Jakob Kellenberger, president of the Geneva-based ICRC, has pleaded with the militants to free the hostages, saying they are only trying to help the needy.
The Abu Sayyaf, which has about 400 gunmen, is on a U.S. list of terrorist organizations for its links with Al Qaeda and involvement in kidnappings, beheadings and deadly bomb attacks.