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Philippine Government Ready to Withdraw from Rebel Area

The Philippine government says it is ready to withdraw some security forces deployed near a hideout of the extremist Abu Sayyaf to facilitate negotiations for the release of three kidnapped Red Cross workers. The Islamic militants have threatened to behead one hostage if security forces remain in position.

Philippine Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno says the government is considering pulling back police and civilian defense forces from the area, in an attempt to save the lives of the Red Cross hostages.

Puno says the Marines have already returned to barracks.

But he insists that the government is not bowing to the demands of the Abu Sayyaf for a wider pull out from the southern island of Jolo because it is tantamount to surrounding the population there into the hands of the Islamic extremist group.

The Abu Sayyaf kidnapped three Red Cross workers - a Filipino, an Italian and a Swiss in January, while they were inspecting a prison water project in the area.

Clashes erupted between the military and the rebels last week, reportedly wounding the group's leader. He threatened to behead one hostage if the government fails to withdraw from the area by Tuesday.

Puno's announcement came after the International Committee of the Red Cross appealed to the government to consider the rebels demand. Anastacia Iyuk, spokeswoman for the ICRC in Manila, says the group asked the government to refrain from further military operations in the area.

"We reiterate our call to the Philippine authorities to do everything in their power to secure the life of the hostages and in the interest of our staff, we ask the authorities to consider the kidnappers demand to reposition troops," she said.

The Red Cross workers are the latest kidnap victims of the Abu Sayyaf, a group that claims to be fighting for a separate Islamic state in the southern Philippines but has earned notoriety for its kidnap-for-ransom activities and beheadings.

In 2001, the group kidnapped three Americans, including a missionary couple. One was beheaded. One of the missionaries was rescued by U.S. trained Filipino soldiers, but her husband was killed during the military operation.