MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines imposed a state of emergency on Tuesday on a remote southern island and troops prepared for a possible rescue of three Red Cross workers being held there by Islamic militants, a provincial governor said.
Abdusakur Tan issued the proclamation of emergency minutes after the expiry of a rebel ultimatum to authorities to withdraw troops from much of Jolo island, which the government has rejected. A curfew was also imposed.
The Abu Sayyaf group had said it would behead one of the hostages if their demand was not met by 2 p.m. (0600 GMT).
But Tan said the provincial government received information all three hostages were still alive even after the deadline lapsed, confirming an earlier statement from a senior military official who asked not to be named.
“That’s what we have learned, that no one was beheaded among the captives,” Tan told a local television station almost five hours after the deadline expired.
“There were some last-ditch efforts by some religious leaders to save the lives of the hostages and, perhaps, the rebels listened to them,” said Tan, governor of Sulu province, which includes Jolo and neighboring islands.
Filipina Mary Jean Lacaba, Swiss national Andreas Notter and Italian Eugenio Vagni, all staff of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), have been held in the jungles of Jolo since January 15. They were abducted after a visit to a local prison where the Red Cross is funding a water project.
“We’re preparing for the worst,” said Tan. “We’re not taking this sitting down,” he earlier told reporters.
Troops who had pulled back from a siege of the kidnappers’ hideout in the jungles of Jolo were retaking vacated positions since negotiations had failed, Tan and other officials said.
“The declaration (of emergency) opens the option for the launch of a military operation,” said Marine spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Edgard Arevalo. However, he added no such operation had been launched.
The emergency order allows security forces to set up checkpoints and gives them wide powers to detain and search suspects.
Senator Richard Gordon, head of the Philippines chapter of the Red Cross, made an emotional last-minute appeal on national television for the freedom of the hostages.
“They have not done anything wrong but serve, visit prisons, provide potable water and feed the hungry and treat the wounded and comfort the afflicted,” he said, wiping away tears.
“They have already helped a lot of people in your areas so there is a need to free them and I appeal to the government to restrain themselves, a little sobriety and not add to the situation.”
Pope Benedict has also appealed to the kidnappers to free the hostages.
“The Holy Father appeals for their freedom and asks the authorities to favor every peaceful solution to this dramatic episode,” the Vatican said in a statement.
The Abu Sayyaf, a small but deadly militant group based on Jolo and the nearby island of Basilan, has claimed the kidnapping and demanded the pull-out of troops from its areas.
The group, which has been linked to the regional Jemaah Islamiah and to al Qaeda, has been blamed for the worst militant attack in the Philippines, the bombing of a ferry in Manila Bay in 2004 that killed 100 people. It is also notorious for high-profile kidnapping and large ransoms.
The Abu Sayyaf has a history of beheading captives. In 2001, American Guillermo Sobero was executed after the government turned down attempts by the rebels to negotiate for hostages on Basilan.
(Additional reporting by Rosemarie Francisco)
Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Dean Yates