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Philippines Declares State of Emergency in Southern Province

The Philippine government declared a state of emergency in the southern province of Sulu, after a deadline set by extremist Muslim rebels for the military to withdraw passed. The Abu Sayyaf group holds three Red Cross workers hostage and threatened to kill one Tuesday, if the military stayed in place.

The chairman of the Philippine Red Cross, Richard Gordon, says he has been trying to find a way to free the kidnapped workers.

The Abu Sayyaf group said it would behead one hostage Tuesday if the military remained in its position near the group's hide-out in the mountains of Sulu. But the government refused to pull back the troops, and declared a state of emergency in Sulu.

Gordon appealed again to the Abu Sayyaf to spare the lives of the Red Cross workers. "You would get nothing out of harming these people," he said. "Return them to us, because they are not your enemies. They help you. When you are wounded in battle and in need of blood, when you are in prison, they visit you. They help your families. Your actions are not supported by the people, and so if you value what little respect remains for you in the community, release them."

The pope and the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva also made similar appeals.

The three hostages - a Filipino, an Italian and a Swiss - were kidnapped in Sulu on January 15, while inspecting a prison water project.

They are the latest high-profile victims of the Abu Sayyaf. The group claims to fight for a separate Islamic state in the southern Philippines but is known more for its kidnappings and beheadings.

Gordon says negotiations to free the hostages have, so far, failed. "They call me but the government has no professional negotiator," said Gordon. "The president sent me three congressmen, and the three congressmen said they could talk to these guys. They reached an agreement very fast on the phone that if the military pulls back [Abu Sayyaf] will give back one hostage, but the defense department said they were not willing to support the idea of going back and withdrawing and so we lost the initiative again."

Security forces had the Abu Sayyaf surrounded in early March. Clashes erupted, reportedly injuring Abu Sayyaf leader Albader Parad. After that, Parad threatened to kill a hostage if the security forces did not pull back. The police, civilian defense forces and the Marines left the area, but the army remained.

With a state of emergency in place, the Sulu governor says military operations will resume and a curfew will be imposed.