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Armed Filipino civilians help encircle kidnappers

Armed Filipino civilians help encircle kidnappers

Philippine police, military and 600 armed civilians have set up a loose cordon around the southern jungles where al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf militants are holding three kidnapped Red Cross workers, police said Sunday.
Meanwhile, a kidnapped government health worker escaped from his Abu Sayyaf captors late Saturday on Basilan Island, near Jolo.
A local Red Cross official expressed alarm that the new action might endanger the three kidnapped workers, but police said it was necessary to block possible routes the militants could use to move their hostages elsewhere.
The International Committee of the Red Cross workers _ Andreas Notter of Switzerland, Italian Eugenio Vagni and Mary Jean Lacaba of the Philippines _ were seized by gunmen Jan. 15 after they inspected a water project on Sulu province's Jolo island, a predominantly Muslim region.
The hostages are believed to be held in the jungles near mountainous Indanan township.
An Abu Sayyaf commander, Albader Parad, has demanded that troops converged nearby withdraw to allow hostage negotiations.
Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan, who heads a provincial task force dealing with the crisis, rejected any military withdrawal. He has declined to say when he will resort to force to end the crisis, saying other steps were being taken to persuade the kidnappers to free the hostages unconditionally.
Sulu provincial police chief Julasirim Kasim said the 600 civilian volunteers from different Jolo townships were deployed in strategic positions around the jungle starting Thursday. He declined to say how large an area had been cordoned off.
"We needed an emergency force to help the armed forces seal off the area of the kidnappers. It's a vast area," Kasim told The Associated Press by telephone.
The civilians were under police control and could not fire their guns without permission, he said.
But Sen. Richard Gordon, who heads the local Red Cross, urged authorities to make sure there will be no accidental clashes that might endanger the lives of the hostages.
"I have made an appeal to authorities to be very, very careful with these people who are not disciplined soldiers," Gordon said. "They are civilians with arms, wearing slippers."
Another group of suspected Abu Sayyaf gunmen burned a school Friday in Patikul township, near Indanan, in an apparent attempt to divert military focus from their surrounded comrades. No one was hurt in the attack, Kasim said.
Military officials have strongly discouraged any payment of ransom to the Abu Sayyaf, a group of more than 300 gunmen that is on a U.S. blacklist of terrorist organizations for its links to al-Qaida and involvement in bombings, kidnappings and beheadings.
The health worker, Eleazar Gumera, was abducted Jan. 28 but managed to run away from an Abu Sayyaf stronghold on Saturday and swim toward a fleet of navy ships, army spokeswoman Lt. Steffani Cacho said Sunday.
A fisherman picked him up, Cacho said, adding that six hostages remain in Abu Sayyaf custody in Basilan. In Jolo, a Chinese-Filipino store owner has also been held hostage by the militants since Dec. 13.