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Filipino troops hunt for abducted ICRC workers

 In this undated handout photo released by the International Committee of the Red Cross, kidnapped ICRC worker Swiss national Andreas Notter is seen. ...
 In this undated handout photo released by the International Committee of the Red Cross, kidnapped ICRC worker Filipino national Mary Jean Lacaba is s...
 In this undated handout photo released by the International Committee of the Red Cross, kidnapped ICRC worker Italian national Eugenio Vagni is seen....

Philippines Kidnapping

In this undated handout photo released by the International Committee of the Red Cross, kidnapped ICRC worker Swiss national Andreas Notter is seen. ...

Philippines Kidnapping

In this undated handout photo released by the International Committee of the Red Cross, kidnapped ICRC worker Filipino national Mary Jean Lacaba is s...

Philippines Kidnapping

In this undated handout photo released by the International Committee of the Red Cross, kidnapped ICRC worker Italian national Eugenio Vagni is seen....

U.S.-backed soldiers with night-vision goggles combed dense southern Philippine jungles on Thursday in pursuit of kidnappers who dragged three Red Cross workers from their vehicle at gunpoint, in the country's most high-profile foreign kidnapping in eight years.
An army general said they hoped to rescue the workers from Italy, Switzerland and the Philippines before they're handed over to Muslim militants notorious for holding hostages for ransom.
The gunmen on motorcycles intercepted a vehicle carrying the three representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross on their way to Jolo airport on the southern island where al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf militants are known to hide.
The driver and two other Filipinos were released and reported the incident, Philippine National Red Cross Chairman Richard Gordon told The Associated Press.
Maj. Gen. Juancho Sabban, head of Jolo's anti-terrorism task force, said their vehicle was found abandoned near mountainous Patikul town, the scene of many clashes between troops and Abu Sayyaf militants hiding in thick jungles.
The gunmen took the hostages into Patikul's rain forest and headed toward nearby Indanan township, possibly to turn the hostages over to notorious Abu Sayyaf commander Albader Parad, Sabban told The AP by telephone from Jolo.
Abu Sayyaf militants are notorious for beheading their hostages and are on a U.S. list of terrorist organizations with links to al-Qaida.
American counterterrorism troops were providing noncombat "assistance and advice" to Philippine forces, a U.S. military official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Marines equipped with night-vision goggles were pursuing the kidnappers on foot after their vehicles got stuck in thick mud, Sabban said. "That jungle is so dense, you couldn't see each other even at a close distance."
The kidnapped workers were identified as Swiss Andreas Notter, 38; Italian Eugenio Vagni, 62; and Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba, 37. They had traveled to Jolo to inspect water sanitation projects in Jolo's provincial jail and in nearby Maimbung township.
The Italian Foreign Ministry said Vagni comes from Montevarchi, near the Tuscan city of Arezzo. Francesco Rocca, the head of the Italian Red Cross, said Vagni, an engineer, has been working in the Philippines for the last two years. He said the Red Cross would continue to work in the area.
"The Red Cross remains on the ground, which is neither a positive nor a negative sign. It just means that the situation still needs to be clarified," Rocca told AP Television News in Rome.
Sabban said the Red Cross workers had refused military escorts. The Red Cross says they cannot accept such offers because they are neutral.
"These gunmen don't see them as Red Cross. They see them as dollar signs," Sabban said.
It was the most high-profile kidnapping of foreigners since 2001, when Abu Sayyaf gunmen snatched nearly two dozen tourists from a resort, including three Americans. One was beheaded and the other was killed during a military rescue operation. The incident prompted Washington to deploy troops in the south starting in 2002, but they are barred from combat.
In 2000, Abu Sayyaf seized about 20 foreign tourists from Malaysia's Sipadan resort and held them on Jolo for several months before they were released in exchange for millions of dollars, reportedly paid by Libya.
Security officials have said the militants are resorting to kidnappings for ransom because they are running out of funds. The number of kidnappings in the south involving Abu Sayyaf and other Muslim rebels jumped from 11 in 2007 to 27 last year, said Leonardo Espina, chief of a police anti-kidnapping task force.
More than 380 Abu Sayyaf fighters _ down from 1,000 from 2001-02 _ are hiding mainly in the hinterlands of predominantly Muslim Jolo and Basilan islands, according to police and the military.
The restive region is home to a decades-old Muslim separatist rebellion.
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Associated Press writers Oliver Teves and Hrvoje Hranjski contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-04-16 09:47 GMT+08:00