Tension gripped the Philippines Tuesday as a deadline set by al Qaeda-linked militants to behead one of three Red Cross workers passed. Military sources confirmed that all three were still alive and the Abu Sayyaf group was being flexible.
The militants had demanded government troops surrounding their position pull back by the stated time, or they would behead one of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) workers.
Officials of the Philippine National Red Cross were trying to contact the militants, but said they could not be reached, leaving the hostages fate unknown.
A military rescue was being considered as government troops started moving back towards Abu Sayyaf's jungle stronghold.
Philippine leaders have steadfastly refused to completely meet the militant's demands.
"We're preparing for the worst," Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan told reporters. "We're not taking this sitting down."
Several appeals were made Tuesday to spare the Red Cross workers' lives — including pleas by the government, the ICRC, and Pope Benedict XVI.
In a last ditch effort, two Muslim lawmakers were reportedly in negotiations with the extremist group.
More than 1,000 Marines, policemen, and civilian forces retreated last Sunday, but Abu Sayyaf Commander Albader Parad said they were standing by their demand of a "complete pullout."
Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said Monday it was a demand that was "physically impossible," considering the limited time they had.
Conceding to Abu Sayyaf's demands would mean confining government forces to only two towns near the provincial capital, effectively giving up control of most of the island.
"Anybody who goes for that and who recommends that, I think, has compromised his position, whether he is a lowly governor or a high official," Hermogenes Esperon Jr., a senior aid to the Filipino president, said Tuesday.