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Troops close in as beheading deadline expires

PHILIPPINE troops and tanks advanced toward a jungle stronghold of al-Qaida-linked extremists after a deadline expired yesterday for the beheading of one of three Red Cross hostages in a critical juncture of the 10-week crisis.

Officials redeployed government forces near the Abu Sayyaf camp in Indanan township on southern Jolo Island and put the predominantly Muslim region under a state of emergency after talks for the safe release of the hostages became bogged down and the militants threatened to behead them by 2pm.

There was no immediate indication that any of the Swiss, Italian and Filipino hostages, who have been held since January 15, were killed after the deadline expired.

Jolo Governor Sakur Tan said an informant told him that all the hostages were still alive but his source had no proof to back up his claim.

"I hope the worst didn't happen and will not happen," International Committee of the Red Cross spokeswoman Anastasia Isyuk said in Manila.

More than 1,000 marines, police and militiamen, who have surrounded the militants for weeks, pulled back from around the Abu Sayyaf stronghold last week to prod the gunmen to make good on their pledge to free one of the hostages.

But the militants reneged on their promise and insisted that troops withdraw from 15 Jolo villages ?? a demand rejected by the government.

"We've given them everything but they didn't budge," Tan said. "The troops are returning there."


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