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AFP: Vagni still with Abu Sayyaf

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines – As security forces step up the search for Italian hostage Eugenio Vagni, his captors have split up into small groups in an effort to confuse government forces in Sulu, the military said yesterday.

Lt. Col. Edgard Arevalo, the designated spokesman for the hostage crisis, confirmed the Abu Sayyaf has broken up into small groups, making it difficult to determine which of them holds Vagni.

Arevalo, however, clarified they have not received information that Vagni, the last of the three Red Cross workers kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf, was handed over to another armed group.

“The group that is keeping him was still the same Abu Sayyaf which is part of the group that split up and that is what our ground troops are trying to determine,” Arevalo said.

Police said they received information that Vagni might have been turned over by his abductors led by Albader Parad to another group of Abu Sayyaf bandits.

Malacañang, on the other hand, said the government is on top of the situation and confirmed Vagni is still alive and well.

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Press Secretary Cerge Remonde, relaying information coming from Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno and Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan, head of the local crisis management committee negotiating the release of the hostages, said Vagni is generally all right.

Officials earlier said Vagni is in pain and unable to walk after more than three months in captivity in the dense jungles of Sulu.

Vagni had previously been reported as needing surgery for hernia, with the harsh jungle terrain in Sulu also said to be taking a toll on his emotional state.

“Secretary Puno told me that while it is true he is suffering... he is still okay,” Remonde said.

Puno and Tan, according to Remonde, expressed optimism that “there will be a peaceful outcome of the (hostage) crisis.”

Remonde said the rescue mission for Vagni is underway but declined to elaborate.

“I cannot divulge further details because I don’t want to affect the conditions on the ground,” Remonde said.

Authorities have offered a P500,000 reward for any information on the whereabouts of Vagni and his captors.

Officials said the reward aims to tap the local community to help in the search and location of the ailing Italian.

Abu Sayyaf gunmen seized Vagni, Swiss national Andreas Notter and Filipino Jean Mary Lacaba of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) last Jan. 15.

Lacaba was released on April 2 while Notter was rescued last Saturday.

Notter was reportedly left behind by his captors as security forces pursued the group.

Following the unexpected rescue of Notter, the provincial crisis committee negotiating the release of the ICRC hostages led by Tan authorized the military and police forces to start rescue operations to recover Vagni.

Tan said he gave the go signal for the military and police to rescue Vagni since negotiations with the Abu Sayyaf were going nowhere and there was concern over his deteriorating condition.

Deputy presidential spokesperson Anthony Golez, who is also the spokesperson of the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC), said local governments in Sulu have already made contingency plans for residents amid the military operations to rescue Vagni.

Golez said a number of evacuation areas have been set up that could be used immediately once military operations against the Abu Sayyaf necessitate a massive evacuation.

Golez said local authorities have already ordered stockpiling of food and medicine for evacuees.

Golez said President Arroyo is constantly updated on the situation in Sulu but has allowed the Sulu provincial government to call the shots. – With Marvin Sy

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