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Freed aid worker recalls ordeal

MANILA, Apr 3 – A Red Cross aid worker released by Islamic militants in the southern Philippines rested out of the public glare Friday as negotiators stepped up efforts to free two foreign colleagues.

Mary Jean Lacaba, who had been held since January 15 along with an Italian and a Swiss national, has said their Abu Sayyaf captors did not mistreat her, according to the vice governor of Jolo island where they were seized.

The vice governor, Nur-Ana Sahidulla, told reporters she met the militants late Thursday and they were refusing to negotiate over the fate of the other hostages until the military has withdrawn from a strategic town.

She saw the two other Red Cross workers — Eugenio Vagni, 62, of Italy and Andreas Notter, 38, of Switzerland — and said they appeared "okay."

Sahidulla said the militants had freed Lacaba into her custody as a sign of good faith and to prove they were not after a ransom.

Lacaba, a 37-year-old Filipina, has not emerged in public since her release late Thursday. Officials say that she wants to rest and has been too tired to elaborate on the conditions of her captivity.

The International Committee of the Red Cross welcomed her release, saying she "appears to be in good health, although very tired and extremely worried for her two colleagues… who are still being held hostage."

"While we welcome this first positive move," it added in a statement, "we reiterate our appeal to the kidnappers to let Eugenio Vagni and Andreas Notter go without delay and unconditionally."

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Lacaba is now in the custody of the military and will be flown to Manila.

Sahidulla said the militants would only negotiate for the release of Vagni and Notter once the military had withdrawn from the town of Indanan, a Muslim stronghold on Jolo.

The army has been pursuing the Abu Sayyaf group but Lacaba apparently did not hear any of the fighting, Sahidulla added.

She stressed that the talks would not cover any ransom demands.

The Abu Sayyaf had previously demanded that all military and police forces be withdrawn from most of Jolo by March 31 or they would behead one of their hostages.

The military withdraw partially from five towns but refused to go further, saying that would leave the island vulnerable to Abu Sayyaf attacks.

President Gloria Arroyo voiced her relief at Lacaba’s release, saying that it was proof that "we should always stand behind our policy of dealing firmly with any form of lawless behaviour."

Abu Sayyaf militants have kidnapped several other westerners over the past decade, many of whom, according to the Philippines military, were ransomed off for millions of dollars.

They also murdered an American hostage, Guillermo Sobero, in 2001, while a second American, Christian missionary Martin Burnham, was killed in a military attack the following year that led to the rescue of his wife Gracia.

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Small units of US military advisers operate on Jolo providing intelligence and counter-terrorist training to troops fighting the Abu Sayyaf.

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