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Direct contact made with ICRC hostages

A Philippine government official has visited three workers of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) kidnapped on a southern Philippine island.

Provincial Vice Governor Lady Ann Sahidulla used her personal contacts to meet the rebel group holding the hostages at a jungle hideout near the Jolo Island's Indanan township.

It was the first direct contact by any official with the kidnappers and the ICRC workers since they were taken at gunpoint on January 15.

The hostages – a Swiss, an Italian and a Philippine national – were being kept in a small house, given clean water and allowed to use a mobile phone and laptop "when there is a signal", Sahidulla said on Thursday.

"They were smiling, but of course I could feel their fear and despair," she noted, adding that the rebel group had said they would not be harmed.

The Abu Sayyaf kidnappers, who include two al-Qaida-linked militants wanted by Washington, demanded education and development projects for impoverished Muslim communities in exchange for the freedom of hostages.

"They want livelihood and free education, but did not mention any amount of money," Sahidulla told the Associated Press. Written demands are expected to be sent later.

Jolo island is a known stronghold of Abu Sayyaf, notorious for beheading their hostages and on a US list of terrorist organisations.

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