By JIM GOMEZ / AP WRITER
MANILA — The governor of a southern Philippine island declared a state of emergency authorizing him to order an attack on al-Qaida-linked militants after a deadline expired Tuesday for the beheading of one of their three Red Cross hostages.
Gov. Sakur Tan signed the emergency order Tuesday, empowering him to order the arrests of the Abu Sayyaf kidnappers and their civilian supporters in a hardening of the government's position after officials failed to negotiate the release of the Swiss, Italian and Filipino hostages.
Curfews and road checkpoints will be imposed in the predominantly Muslim Sulu province, which includes the main island of Jolo. The order defined the hostage-taking 10 weeks ago "as a heinous crime that deserves to be punished to the fullest extent of the law."
It was not immediately clear if an attack or a military rescue was imminent. Tanks and truckloads of marines rolled out of a Jolo camp toward Indanan town to try to surround the gunmen in a hilly jungle, Tan said without elaborating.
"We'll make sure that these bandits cannot kidnap again," Tan said.
The emergency declaration came after the militants ignored pleas to release the hostages, who have been held since Jan. 15. They have threatened to behead one of them after the government refused their demand for security forces to withdraw from 15 Jolo villages.
There was no word from Abu Sayyaf about the fate of the hostages after the kidnappers' 2 p.m. deadline to behead a hostage expired.
Abu Sayyaf gunmen said earlier Tuesday that they would execute one of the Red Cross captives unless troops withdrew from the area by the deadline, despite appeals from Pope Benedict XVI and others to free the hostages.
"The decision of the group is to behead if there will be no pullout," Abu Sayyaf commander Abu Ali told The Associated Press in a cell phone text message Tuesday from the militant jungle stronghold on Jolo island.
"There will be no extension of the deadline for the pullout and we have no plan to release any hostage if there will be no pullout," he said.
Sen. Richard Gordon, who heads the Philippine Red Cross, made a last-minute appeal to the militants to spare the hostages as the deadline passed, and he addressed the captives directly on national television.
"The whole family of the Red Cross prays for you and I'm proud of the way you've comported yourself," Gordon said in the broadcast, his voice breaking and wiping away tears as he mentioned the names of the captives. "I'm sorry I should be stronger than you because I'm not in midst of the ordeal you're in now."
Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said Monday that it was impossible for the government to vacate the 15 villages by 2 p.m. Tuesday as demanded by the militants a day earlier. He said there was not enough time and that a wider pullout would leave the island's civilian population exposed to militant attacks.
Puno hinted the government was ready to use force if the militants harm any of the hostages. Some 120 gunmen have held the aid workers—Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba, Swiss Andreas Notter and Italian Eugenio Vagni—in a hilly jungle in Jolo's Indanan town.
The Abu Sayyaf group has beheaded hostages in the past, including an American in 2001 as well as seven Filipinos in 2007.
The US government has placed the Abu Sayyaf, which has about 400 gunmen, on its list of terrorist organizations.