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Red Cross hostage freed after 6 months

AN Italian Red Cross official held hostage by Muslim rebels for nearly six months in the Philippines was freed yesterday, saying he had almost lost hope of walking away from captivity.

Eugenio Vagni, 61, was abandoned by his captors at a remote village in Maimbung town on Jolo island early yesterday and was fetched by soldiers and Nur-Ana Sahidulla, vice governor of the province in the south of the mainly Catholic Philippines, the military said.

He was taken to an army base for a medical checkup and later flown to an air base in southern port city of Zamboanga, where colleagues from the Red Cross were waiting for him.

"I thank all the people and the prayers that led to this happening because I was thinking that it will never happen," said Vagni, weak and near tears.

Officials said no ransom had been paid. But local news Websites said Vagni was freed after the military agreed to free two wives of a senior Abu Sayyaf leader, part of the group that held Vagni in the rugged interior of Jolo since January.

The women were arrested at a military checkpoint on Tuesday, the news reports said. They are now in the custody of Sahidulla, who was active in negotiations to free Vagni.

The military denied it had agreed to an exchange of prisoners, saying pressure exerted by security forces contributed to the release.

"Skillful negotiations and incessant pressure through relentless operations by members of the security forces won the release of Vagni," Lieutenant-Colonel Edgard Arevalo said, adding that the offensive against the Abu Sayyaf would continue.

Sahidulla said a small amount of money was given to Vagni's captors for his "accommodation." "There was a minimal charge ... about 50,000 pesos (US$1,035)," Sahidulla said.

A spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross said they were "happy and relieved to hear" of Vagni's release.

"We spoke to him on the phone and he's doing remarkably well, given the circumstances that he had been in captivity," said Anastasia Isyuk, a spokeswoman of the Red Cross delegation in Manila.

Vagni, an engineer, and two other ICRC officials were taken hostage on January 15 after they inspected a sanitation project at a prison on Jolo. The others, Filipina Mary Jean Lacaba and Swiss national Andreas Notter, were freed in April.


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