Troops have tracked the kidnappers on the southern island of Jolo, believed to be members of the Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group, to the remote jungles near Indanan town, a known rebel stronghold where past abductees have been taken, military intelligence officials told IRIN.
Swiss national Andreas Notter, Italian Eugenio Vagni and Filipina Mary-Jean Lacaba were kidnapped on 15 January while on a humanitarian mission to the Jolo Provincial Jail.
Heavily armed men commandeered their Red Cross-marked vehicle, which was subsequently recovered.
The hostages made contact with their colleagues four days after the abduction, but the communication lines were cut off thereafter as the troops mounted a massive rescue effort on the orders of President Gloria Arroyo and armed forces chief General Alexander Yano.
However, on 27 January, Alain Aeschlimann, ICRC's head of Asia Pacific operations, said the three abducted staff had managed to re-establish contact with ICRC offices in Manila.
"We have had contact with Mary-Jean, Eugenio and Andreas over the past 48 hours," Aeschlimann said. "They say that considering the circumstances, they are doing alright. Their voices sounded composed and calm and we hope that this is a positive sign."
|We have had contact with Mary-Jean, Eugenio and Andreas over the past 48 hours. They say that considering the circumstances, they are doing alright.|
However, he said, the ICRC "reiterates its call for their rapid and unconditional release. We genuinely appreciate all efforts to bring our colleagues safely home and the concern of so many people inside and outside the ICRC for their welfare and we are grateful for their support."
Lieutenant Steffani Cacho, spokeswoman for the Western Mindanao Command, which covers Jolo, said troops had a general idea of where the hostages were, although no instructions had been given to launch a rescue pending final confirmation.
"We have an idea where they are, but we are working under the ambit of a local crisis committee headed by Jolo Governor Sakur Tan", which is continuing to work through various channels on the ground to safely recover the three and avoid a confrontation that could potentially harm the hostages, she said.
"Right now, we are playing this whole thing by ear, but are doing our utmost to rescue them unharmed," she said.
The abduction underscores the perils faced by aid agencies in the volatile southern Philippines, officials say. The hostages had been initially offered armed escorts by the army, but had turned them down in keeping with the ICRC's code of neutrality.
The Abu Sayyaf, or "bearer of the sword", movement has abducted dozens of foreign tourists, aid workers and members of religious groups since the late 1990s.
It is considered the most ruthless of armed gangs operating in the south, its ideological leanings diluted by criminal operations after its founder, Afghan-trained Mujahedin Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, was killed in a gun battle with police in 1998, triggering an internal power struggle.
The US government has the group on its list of foreign terrorist organisations and is helping local troops in their anti-terrorism drive by providing logistical and intelligence support.
Lieutenant Colonel Ernesto Torres, a spokesman for Army headquarters in Manila, said troops may ask their US counterparts to provide unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones to help in the search operations, but stressed that American forces would not be actively engaged in combat duties, in line with the constitution.
A small number of US forces have been deployed in the southern Philippines since 2003 as part of the US government's global anti-terrorism campaign and drones have been used to track down and capture Abu Sayyaf leaders, Torres said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions