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At least six people have been killed and 19 wounded on the second day of fighting between Philippine troops and the Islamist group Abu Sayyaf on the southern Philippine island of Sulu (Jolo). Fighting erupted Monday when the leader of Abu Sayyaf – which has taken three International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) workers hostage – tried to break through a military encirclement. Philippine government officials and the Red Cross are concerned that the intensifying clashes pose a risk to the hostages' lives.
According to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, an English-language Philippine daily, three of the dead were Philippine soldiers.
[Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Gaudencio Pangilinan] said the wounded soldiers included four who were hurt when troops ... clashed with between 50 to 90 fighters believed to be the main Abu Sayyaf force holding Swiss Andreas Notter, Italian Eugenio Vagni, and Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba in the vicinity of Barangay (village) Buton Mahablo, Parang town around 5:30 a.m….
The exact number of deaths resulting from the clashes has not been verified, reports GMA News, the website of a Philippine radio and television station. There are unconfirmed reports that, in addition to three Philippine Army soldiers, six Abu Sayyaf militants have also been killed, but this has not been confirmed.
A marine officer said at least two militants were hit by gunfire, and one of them might have been Abu Sayyaf commander Albader Parad. The marines could not approach to confirm if Parad was wounded or killed because of sporadic rebel fire, said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
The military was still trying to confirm if Parad was hit, [military spokesman] Pangilinan said.
U.S. and Philippine officials have offered a reward for the capture or killing of Parad, a young militant who has gained notoriety for alleged involvement in past kidnappings and beheadings.
Pangilinan told reporters that the fighting near Indanan town of Jolo was not an attempt to rescue the hostages.
He said the fighting started when the kidnappers tried to break out of the military cordon around the area.
"There is no word on the hostages. But there was no sighting of them, so they might be away from the scene of the fighting," Pangilinan said.
Although the military cannot ascertain the exact whereabouts of the three ICRC hostages, their equipment was found at the scene of the clashes on Tuesday, reports Agence France-Presse.
Troops in the Philippines have found tents and other equipment belonging to three Red Cross workers held hostage by Islamic militants, the military said Tuesday.
It followed a firefight that likely killed one of their kidnappers in what is believed to be the closest yet that government forces have come to locating the three.
On Monday, a senior official with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Manila said the military offensive was jeopardizing the hostages....
"Their safety is paramount. We repeat our call that no action should be taken that could put the lives of Mary Jean, Eugenio and Andreas in danger," Alain Aeschlimann, head of the Red Cross in Asia-Pacific, said in a statement posted on the organization's web site. "The responsibility for their well-being lies with all those involved in this situation."
The three workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have been held since 16 January in a hilly jungle area near southern Jolo island's Indanan township.
The ICRC said they had last been in touch last Wednesday and that the hostages - Swiss national Andreas Notter, Italian Eugenio Vagni and Filipina Mary Jean Lacaba - were "calm and composed".
They have been enduring constant rain, some illness, and enforced movement as the gunmen holding them sought to avoid military operations.
The Abu Sayyaf has demanded the withdrawal of the military in exchange for freeing the captives.
The Philippine Daily Enquirer reports that Abu Sayyaf is accused of bombing a passenger ferry in the Manila Bay in 2004, leaving over 100 people dead. The organization is also blamed for dozens of kidnappings and the deaths of two Americans kidnapped from a Philippine resort in 2001. Abu Sayyaf is on the United States' lists of terrorist organizations.
In the early 1990s, Abu Sayyaf split from the Moro National Liberation Front, one of the two major Muslim separatist movements in the southern Philippines, which were then trying to come to terms with the central government in Manila....
Abu Sayyaf mostly operates in the southern Philippines, specifically in the Sulu Archipelago and the easternmost island of Mindanao....Since 2001, Philippine military operations, supported by the United States, have weakened Abu Sayyaf on Basilan Island and in the Sulu islands.