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Troops hunt for hostage

FIGHTING has escalated in the southern Philippines as troops step up the hunt for an Italian Red Cross engineer held by an Islamic rebel group for five months, a marine spokesman said yesterday.

Six rebels belonging to the Abu Sayyaf, a militant group with ties to regional network Jemaah Islamiaj, were killed in clashes on southern Jolo island, Lieutenant-Colonel Edgard Arevalo said. Five rebels were wounded.

On Saturday, the rebels killed six soldiers and wounded 17 in an attack on a military convoy returning to a base in Parang town on Jolo, two days after security forces raided a rebel base in nearby Indanan, killing eight rebels and two soldiers.

"Our troops will not stop until we have neutralized the Abu Sayyaf and resolved the kidnapping problem in the south," Arevalo said, adding the Italian Red Cross engineer, Eugenio Vagni, was being kept far from the conflict areas.

"Based on all the information that we're getting, Vagni is alive. He was sighted by some civilians taking a bath in a river near Parang three days ago. We have information that he was not near the conflict areas in Indanan and Parang."

The government has offered a reward of 500,000 pesos (US$10,500) for information on the whereabouts of Vagni, 61, the last of three workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross held on Jolo as hostage.

The ICRC said it was concerned for Vagni's safety and was worried every time the Red Cross heard about military operations to free him.


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