Al-Qaida-linked militants have threatened to behead one of three Red Cross hostages in one week unless Philippine troops pull back from the guerrillas' southern jungle stronghold, officials said Wednesday.
The latest threat was made by Abu Sayyaf commander Albader Parad on Monday during a phone conversation with a government official. The official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media and was not part of a government task force handling the crisis.
The military swiftly rejected the demand, saying the Abu Sayyaf cannot be trusted. The militants reneged on an earlier pledge to free one hostage last week from a hilly jungle near Indanan township on Jolo Island after troops complied with their initial demand to move back.
"We gambled that they will keep their end of the bargain and release a hostage," military spokesman Lt. Col. Ernesto Torres told DZBB radio. "It's hard to rely on their word."
He said government troops would consider the threat in planning their next step.
Abducted in January
The three International Committee of the Red Cross workers — Swiss Andreas Notter, Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba and Italian Eugenio Vagni — were abducted while inspecting a Jolo prison water project on Jan. 15.
Fears for their safety mounted after marine snipers last week fired at the militants trying to breach a loose military cordon, sparking two days of clashes that killed three marines and up to seven guerrillas.
The hostages were not harmed but Parad later threatened to kill all of them if another clash erupted or if the military tried to rescue the hostages. He had promised to free one hostage if government forces moved away from his encampment.
Torres said government troops could not move back farther.
"We're still keeping our eyes on the kidnappers. We have not moved back too far as to allow them to escape," Torres said.
"We have not changed our objectives — first to safely rescue the ICRC aid workers and secondly, to neutralize the kidnappers," he said.
Aside from Parad, who has been blamed for past kidnappings and beheadings, marine officials believe government forces have surrounded other Abu Sayyaf commanders and Indonesian militants they have been hunting for years on Jolo.
The Abu Sayyaf has about 400 gunmen and is on the U.S. list of terrorist groups for its links to al-Qaida and involvement in kidnappings, beheadings and deadly bomb attacks.