MANILA, Philippines – Philippine troops and tanks advanced toward a jungle stronghold of Al Qaeda-linked extremists after a deadline expired Tuesday for the beheading of one of three Red Cross hostages in a critical juncture of the 10-week crisis.
Officials redeployed government forces near the Abu Sayyaf camp in Indanan township on southern Jolo Island and put the predominantly Muslim region under a state of emergency after talks for the safe release of the hostages became bogged down and the militants threatened to behead them by 2 p.m. Tuesday.
There was no immediate indication that any of the Swiss, Italian and Filipino hostages, who have been held since Jan. 15, were killed after the deadline expired.
More than 1,000 marines, police and militiamen, who have surrounded the militants for weeks, pulled back from around the Abu Sayyaf stronghold last week to prod the gunmen to make good on their pledge to free one hostage. But the militants reneged on their promise and insisted that troops withdraw from 15 Jolo villages — a demand rejected by the government.
"We've given them everything but they didn't budge," Jolo Gov. Sakur Tan said. "The troops are returning there."
On Tuesday, tanks and truckloads of marines rolled out of a Jolo camp toward Indanan to try to surround the gunmen in a hilly jungle, Tan said. He refused to say if a military rescue was imminent or if the troops were being brought back to force the militants to resume negotiations.
"We'll make sure that these bandits cannot kidnap again," Tan said.
Tan's emergency declaration empowered him to order the arrests of the Abu Sayyaf kidnappers, impose a curfew and set up road checkpoints on Jolo. He said the hostage-taking was "a heinous crime that deserves to be punished to the fullest extent of the law."
Abu Sayyaf gunmen said earlier Tuesday they would behead one of the captives unless troops withdrew from the area by the deadline, despite appeals from Pope Benedict XVI and others to free the hostages.
"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.
Sen. Richard Gordon, who heads the Philippine Red Cross, made a last-minute appeal to the militants to spare the hostages as the deadline passed, and he addressed the captives directly on national television.
"The whole family of the Red Cross prays for you and I'm proud of the way you've comported yourself," Gordon said in the broadcast, his voice breaking and wiping away tears as he mentioned the names of the captives. "I'm sorry I should be stronger than you because I'm not in midst of the ordeal you're in now."
Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said it was impossible for the government to vacate the 15 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 — Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba, Swiss Andreas Notter and Italian Eugenio Vagni.
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.