MANILA, Philippines ? (UPDATE) Sulu Governor Sakur Tan slammed the "ultimatum" by the abductors of the three members of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for military troops to pull out by the end of the month or one of the hostages would be beheaded.
In an interview on Wednesday, Tan said that the Abu Sayyaf abductors gave authorities until Saturday, March 28, to order the pullout of all government forces and confine them within the perimeter of Jolo, Sulu.
"If we pull out, we are opening the whole province to criminals," Tan said.
Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff General Alexander Yano said a total pullout of troops was not a "major consideration" despite the kidnappers? alleged threats.
The military, he said, will continue to maintain troops in positions far enough from the kidnappers not to trigger any clashes but near enough to maintain pressure on them.
Lieutenant Colonel Edgard Arevalo, the designated military spokesman on the hostage crisis said the decision on whether to pull back troops or not remains with the Task Force ICRC, the multi-agency body led by Tan.
Yano refused to comment when asked about reports the hostages had been separated, calling these "operational details that cannot be discussed in public."
In a separate interview aired on ANC Tuesday night Tan said that the government position on the Abu Sayyaf demand was "non-negotiable."
"My position is that, that is non-negotiable, I mean, we are not going to abandon the whole province," said Tan who also headed Task Force ICRC, the crisis committee tasked to facilitate the safe release of the hostages.
Tan said that Sulu vice-governor Lady-ann Sahidulla was able to speak with the Abu Sayyaf?s Abu Pula alias "Dr. Abu" who relayed the demand. Pula has a $100,000 reward on his head.
The Abu Sayyaf has called Sahidulla, the Task Force ICRC's designated person to communicate with the Muslim extremists, and laid down their demands, Tan said, adding that the abductors initiated communication with the crisis committee.
He added that other than the pullout of troops, the abductors have not demanded ransom.
"So far, they have not [given] any ransom demand but they would not want to talk unless the forces, the government forces, are pulled out of the area and went back to the perimeter of the capital of Jolo and the province have 19 towns," Tan said.
"I don?t agree, in fact from the very beginning I do not agree with the payment of ransom... walang binabanggit na [there is no mention of] ransom but very clear naman po, pagkanag-ransom 'yun, hindi ako sasama dyan [but it?s very clear that if there is ransom, then I won?t be a part of it]," he added.
?If the military continues to stand their ground it might even be beneficial to the civilian residents of the province,? Tan said.
"If you do not pay any ransom and we just move with what we are doing now, cordoning off the area where they are in now and I would think that this even help the civilians, I mean, this would insulate the civilians from getting caught in the crossfire," Tan added.
A military offensive to rescue Swiss Andreas Notter, Italian Eugenio Vagni, and Filipina Jean Lacaba who were kidnapped last January 15, remains a last resort, Tan said.
"Well, if there is really no way of getting the hostages peacefully then we?ll have to resort to that," Tan said.
He added that the Task Force ICRC has formed a six-man team to negotiate with the abductors, which includes Sahidulla, former leader of the Moro National Liberation Front Nur Misuari, members of the academe and from the Ulama or Muslim spiritual advisers.
He added that other than the "order" of 53 local civil society groups to include Misuari in the negotiating Panel, no group has suggested that the Task Force ICRC solicit the assistance of higher authorities in resolving the crisis.