MANILA, Philippines – Al Qaeda-linked militants released one of three Red Cross hostages, a Filipino woman, on Thursday after 10 weeks in jungle captivity on a southern island, officials said.
Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro said on nationwide television that Mary Jean Lacaba, 37, was safe in the hands of a southern military commander and the vice governor of Jolo island, where the trio were threatened with beheading earlier this week.
"She's alive and well," said Sen. Richard Gordon, head of the Philippine Red Cross. "I'm really very elated. I'm so happy and had a good cry.
"I hope we can get the other two," Gordon added.
He said that he had received information earlier Thursday that Italian Eugenio Vagni and Swiss Andreas Notter were seen alive, and that one of them was walking with a cane.
Jolo Vice Gov. Lady Anne Sahidulla, who said she secured Lacaba's release in talks with the militants Thursday, also said she saw the Swiss and Italian men and "they're OK. They escorted (Lacaba)."
In the first footage of Lacaba, shown on GMA-7 television, she was being pushed in a wheelchair to a trauma clinic in the Jolo military camp. She wore a red hijab Muslim headdress and was talking on a cell phone.
"All of us are excited and happy. It's good she was safely recovered. Right now she's resting, she's being attended to by doctors," said Lt. Gen. Nelson Allaga, head of the Western Mindanao Command. He said Lacaba was able to talk to her husband and her co-workers in the International Commitee of the Red Cross.
Sahidulla, who has previously visited the hostages, said she went back to the militant camp and talked to the Abu Sayyaf.
"When I reached the place, the talks were good. I convinced them" to free Lacaba, she said.
In Geneva, ICRC chief spokesman Florian Westphal confirmed Lacaba's release and said she appeared in good health "although very tired and obviously, like all of us, she is concerned for her two colleagues, Eugenio Vagni and Andreas Notter, who are still being held hostage."
Gordon refused to say what led to Lacaba's release, saying, "At least we have one. Maybe the other two will be freed later, hopefully."
He again urged the Abu Sayyaf captors not to harm the remaining hostages. "I'm appealing to them not to harm them and I also appeal to the military also to take it slowly and let's not act if it's dangerous."
The Red Cross workers were seized Jan. 15 after visiting a Red Cross water sanitation project at the Jolo provincial jail.
After holding them for more than two months, the Abu Sayyaf threatened this week to behead a hostage unless troops withdrew by Tuesday. The government said it had already pulled back some forces and could not comply.
As the Abu Sayyaf deadline passed, Jolo Gov. Sakur Tan declared a state of emergency on the island, redeploying troops closer to the militant camp, and negotiations behind the scene were gathering pace.
Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said earlier that Jolo Rep. Yusop Jikiri, a former Muslim rebel commander with extensive connections among the militants, talked with Abu Sayyaf commander Abu Pula on Tuesday but failed to win the hostages' release.
Puno said the kidnappers were moving within a 9.4-square-mile jungle area on Jolo.
He said the area was drenched in rain, making travel and living conditions difficult. The gunmen could not readily abandon the hilly area because it has been their only source of drinking water in the jungle, Puno said.
"This has been their situation for a while now, and although there has been no offensive action taken against them, they have absolutely no possibility of getting away from the area," he said.
He said the focus of government efforts was to make sure that kidnappers "head back in the direction of negotiation with anyone."
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.