April 18, 2009 / 2:00 AM / 10 years ago

Red Cross hostage in Philippines walks free

MANILA (Reuters) - Islamic rebels in the Philippines freed a Swiss Red Cross worker held hostage for over three months but continued to hold another European captive, security officials said Saturday.

The circumstances surrounding the freedom of Andreas Notter, 37, were not clear, and he himself said he was not sure how it came about.

“I walked out and am happy to be alive and safe,” Notter told a news conference at the house of the provincial governor on the southern island of Jolo, where he was brought early on Saturday.

“I am very glad to be here with you. It happened very quickly. I am still a bit confused how it happened. My concern for now is my companion, Mr. Eugenio Vagni. You are all aware that he is injured.”

Notter, Italian national Vagni and Filipina Mary Jean Lacaba, all officers of the International Committee of the Red Cross, were abducted by Abu Sayyaf rebels on January 15 when they were on a field visit to a prison on Jolo, a guerrilla stronghold.

Lacaba was freed by the rebels earlier this month and newspapers have said ransom was paid.

Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said a group of men holding Notter was attempting to slip out of the security cordon around the guerrilla camp in the interior of Jolo when they were spotted by security forces who gave pursuit.

“The kidnappers left behind Mr. Notter because they were not able to drag him with them anymore,” Puno told reporters, adding military pressure forced the rebels to free the hostage. “We are fortunate that this incident ended without injury to Mr. Notter.”

Earlier, a military spokesman had said Notter was found by troops. Senator Richard Gordon, head of the Philippine National Red Cross, told Reuters Notter was found walking near Indanan town, in the interior of Jolo, early Saturday morning.

CANNOT GIVE DETAILS

“We cannot at the moment disclose all the details that transpired as doing so may derail current efforts to ensure the safe release of the remaining victim,” military chief General Alexander Yano said in a statement.

Notter, unshaven and with long hair, was smiling when he faced journalists after doctors gave him a clean bill of health, although he looked to have lost weight during his captivity.

The Swiss national, a former history professor, was given time to rest after a glass of milk and a soft meal, Puno said, adding Notter had already contacted family, friends and Red Cross colleagues.

“He is suffering from fatigue and may be a little bit disoriented for the moment,” Puno said.

“When we first heard reports of his extrication from the kidnappers, we were afraid because he was seen walking around with a cane. But, he looks in good health. The doctors did not find any serious health problem.”

The Abu Sayyaf, a small but violent militant group based on Jolo and nearby Basilan, had earlier demanded that troops relax the tight cordon they were keeping around the rebel hideout before talks for the hostages’ release could start.

Provincial governor Tan sent a team of Muslim clerics to the rebel camp earlier this week to seek the release of Vagni, a 62-year-old who is reportedly suffering from hernia.

There was no word on any progress.

The Abu Sayyaf, with links to the Southeast Asian regional militant network 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 kidnappings and large ransoms and has a history of beheading captives.

Reporting by Manny Mogato and Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani

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