Officials in the southern Philippines said three Red Cross workers held by the militant group Abu Sayyaf remain safe, hours after a deadline to behead one of them expired.

The abductors had threatened to execute one of the hostages by 2:00 PM local time (0600 UTC) Tuesday unless the government withdrew all its forces from Jolo Island.

Provincial Governor Abdusakur Tan of Sulu province, which includes Jolo, told reporters late Tuesday that he had information the three captives were still alive.  

After the deadline expired, the provincial government declared a state of emergency.  Governor Tan imposed a curfew and authorized search and seizure operations in pursuit of the kidnappers and their supporters.

The three workers: Eugenio Vani of Italy, Mary Jean Lacaba of the Philippines and Andreas Notters of Switzerland, were kidnapped on January 15.

Last week, the Philippine government withdrew troops from a portion of Jolo Island, in response to a pledge that one of the hostages would be freed.  However, the release never took place, and Abu Sayyaf demanded a larger pullout late Sunday.  The Philippines interior secretary, Ronaldo Puno, said it was physically impossible to comply.

The chairman of the Philippine National Red Cross, Richard Gordon, appealed to Abu Sayyaf shortly before the Tuesday deadline to release the hostages.  He said Albadeer Parad, leader of the group holding the Red Cross workers, rejected his appeal in a telephone talk.

Pope Benedict XVI added his voice to the plea for the hostages' safety on Monday.

Abu Sayyaf is a Muslim extremist group that says it is fighting for an Islamic state in the southern Philippines.  Since its inception in the 1990s, the group has been involved in some of the bloodiest attacks in the region, as well as numerous kidnappings and bombings. 



Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.