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Freed Red Cross hostage feared beheading
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Al-Qaida-linked militants freed an Italian Red Cross worker yesterday from six months of jungle captivity in the southern Philippines, officials said. The 62-year old said he was treated well but constantly feared being beheaded.

Freed Italian hostage Eugenio Vagni hugs his wife Kwan and their daughter Leticia shortly after arriving at a military airbase in Manila yesterday. Gaunt and haggard, Vagni was held captive for 179 days along with two colleagues.[Chinadaily.com.cn]

Eugenio Vagni appeared to be in good health but tired as Abu Sayyaf gunmen handed him over to a provincial vice governor shortly after midnight in the jungle near Maimbung township on southern Jolo Island, officials said.

Vagni embraced military officers at a Jolo military camp, muttering "Thank you" repeatedly, said marine Colonel Eugenio Clemen.

Vagni said he was treated well by his Abu Sayyaf captors. He lost about 20 kg and was fed mostly rice and fish. The militants helped treat his cholera and carried his backpack when he got tired, but that did not ease his constant fear of being beheaded.

Vagni told ABS-CBN network that he often imagined seeing "my head in a big basket".

TV footage showed Vagni, who had grown a beard, smiling and waving to well-wishers. "I love them all," Vagni said.

"I'm very elated that the ordeal is over for Vagni," said Senator Richard Gordon, who heads the Philippine Red Cross. "It's been six months of constant fear of gunbattles, of being ordered around, of being held away from his wife and children."

Vagni's brother, Francesco, told reporters in Italy that "there were moments that I believed he would never come back". The two brothers spoke by phone, ANSA reported.

The aid worker, who suffers from hypertension and a hernia, was kidnapped along with two Red Cross colleagues after inspecting a Jolo jail water project on Jan 15.

The Swiss and the Filipino hostages had been freed earlier, but the Abu Sayyaf held on to Vagni for months, entering into on-and-off negotiations for his release while government troops tried to rescue him.

Gordon said that Sulu Vice Gov Lady Ann Sahidulla was asked by the militants to escort Vagni to safety and that she "donated" $1,041 to an intermediary, but he stressed this was not a ransom.

The kidnappers were also pressured by the recent arrests of the two wives of Abu Sayyaf commander Albader Parad, who held Vagni, Colonel Clemen said. It was not immediately clear if the women have been released in exchange for Vagni's freedom.

"Skillful negotiations and incessant pressure by relentless operations ... won the release of Vagni," Philippine marine spokesman Lt Col Edgard Arevalo said.

Offensives against the Abu Sayyaf will continue, he said.

(China Daily via agencies July 13, 2009)

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