World News

Philippine troops clash with ICRC's kidnappers, 9 dead

MANILA (Reuters) - Intense clashes broke out on Tuesday between Philippine troops and Muslim rebels holding three Red Cross officers hostage, killing up to three soldiers and six guerrillas, officials said.

At least 19 soldiers were wounded, but there was no word on the fate of the hostages, who have been held on the remote southern island of Jolo for more than two months, they said.

The hostages -- Swiss national Andreas Notter, Italian Eugenio Vagni and Filipina Mary Jean Lacaba -- were abducted on Jan. 15 after visiting a prison on Jolo.

Military spokesman Brigadier-General Gaudencio Pangilinan told reporters that the fighting near Indanan town on Jolo was not an attempt to rescue the hostages.

He said the fighting started when the kidnappers tried to break out of the military cordon around the area.

“There is no word on the hostages. But there was no sighting of them, so they might be away from the scene of the fighting,” Pangilinan said.

The leader of the kidnappers was believed to have been wounded in a gunbattle with troops on Monday, officials have said.

Also on Monday, assailants threw a grenade into a karaoke bar in downtown Jolo, killing two people and wounding three others.

The attack could be an attempt by the Abu Sayyaf rebels to draw military attention away from efforts to free the Red Cross workers, army spokeswoman Steffani Cacho said.

“It could also be a retaliation after the Abu Sayyaf rebels suffered losses in a firefight early on Monday,” Cacho told reporters.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has said the three hostages were last in contact last Wednesday and were “calm and composed”.

Anastasia Isyuk, ICRC spokeswoman in Manila, said the organisation was concerned about the safety of the hostages after learning of fresh fighting in the south.

“We appeal to those involved in the resolution of this crisis to consider the safety of our colleagues,” Isyuk told Reuters.

“We’re hoping that we could get direct contact with them as soon as possible.”

The Abu Sayyaf has demanded the withdrawal of the military from their areas in exchange for freeing the captives.

Newspapers have said the kidnappers have also demanded a ransom, with one estimate of $1 million.