Philippine troops have fanned out on a southern island to search for gunmen who abducted three members of the International Committee on the Red Cross (ICRC), including an Italian and a Swiss national, officials said on Friday.
The abduction, on the island of Jolo, took place on Thursday but there has been no sighting of or communication from the kidnappers, believed to be from the notorious Abu Sayyaf group of Islamic radicals, they said.
"We're not really sure whether the Abu Sayyaf was behind the kidnapping because no group has come forward to claim responsibility for the abduction," Marine Lieutenant-General Nelson Allaga, military commander in the Western Mindanao area, told reporters.
Allaga said authorities had received information a former guard at a provincial jail on Jolo, which the ICRC team visited earlier in the week, could have been involved in the abduction.
"We're still validating information a former jail guard was in cahoots with the gunmen that abducted the ICRC team," Allaga said, adding the suspect was also believed to have been involved in the escape of 12 inmates from the prison on Tuesday.
Julasirim Kasim, police chief on Jolo Island, said authorities were still investigating links between the abduction of the ICRC team and the jailbreak on Tuesday. Some of the escapees were linked to the Abu Sayyaf, police had said.
The ICRC has said the team was kidnapped a few hundred metres from the prison.
"These are all stories that need to be verified thoroughly," Kasim told reporters, adding they were interviewing witnesses who were in the area at the time of the abduction.
Police said the kidnap was led by Albader Parad, a top leader of the Abu Sayyaf. The theory was bolstered by information the gunmen were moving towards an area in the interior of Jolo where Parad was known to be operating.
The ICRC has identified the three kidnap victims as Andreas Notter, a 38-year-old Swiss national; Eugenio Vagni, a 62-year-old Italian and Mary Jean Lacaba, a 37-year-old from the Philippines.
Military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ernesto Torres said the troops were focusing on three areas where the gunmen were believed to have taken the captives.
"We have identified certain municipalities on Jolo where we would focus our operations," Torres told reporters in Manila, saying these areas were the known strongholds of the Abu Sayyaf.
NO WORD FROM ANYBODY
The Abu Sayyaf, which has been linked in the past to Al Qaeda and is believed to be sheltering Indonesians wanted for the 2002 Bali bombings, is notorious for demanding large ransoms. But the ICRC said they had not been contacted.
"We have not heard anything from anybody," spokesman Roland Bigler told a radio station. "We don't know what group was behind the kidnapping."
Richard Gordon, head of the local Red Cross organisation, said there would be no negotiation to recover the three ICRC personnel, adding the role of the Abu Sayyaf was not clear.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country's largest Muslim rebel group, would help locate and work for the release of the captives, said Mohaqher Iqbal, one of the rebels' senior leaders.
"We've asked our political and military people on the ground to gather information and help for the safe release of the Red Cross team," Iqbal told Reuters, adding the MILF condemned the kidnapping because the ICRC is a neutral organisation.
The Abu Sayyaf is said to have about 350 members based on Jolo and the nearby island of Basilan. It has supporters among the Muslim-dominated local residents but has been largely dormant since its top leaders were killed in a series of encounters with troops in late 2006 and early 2007.