Al-Qaida-linked militants holding a kidnapped Italian Red Cross worker killed a southern Philippine provincial police chief and at least three other people in an ambush Thursday, officials said.
Sulu provincial police chief Julasirim Kasim, his brother and at least two officers were gunned down by Abu Sayyaf militants near Maimbung township on Jolo island, regional police chief Bensali Jabarani said. Four others were wounded.
Jabarani said Kasim and the other officers were taking part in an ongoing operation to rescue Red Cross worker Eugenio Vagni of Italy. Vagni is the last of three Red Cross hostages still in the hands of the militants. They were kidnapped Jan. 15 on Jolo, which is part of Sulu.
Jabarani said Kasim had been en route to meet up with troops involved in the rescue operation. He said security forces were pursuing the militants.
Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan ordered the rescue effort last month after negotiations with the Abu Sayyaf for the release of Vagni failed and the 62-year-old Red Cross worker's health continues to deteriorate in the jungle. Vagni is suffering from hypertension and needs surgery for a hernia.
Vagni and fellow Red Cross workers Andreas Notter of Switzerland and Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba were kidnapped after inspecting a Jolo jail water supply project.
Lacaba was freed April 2. Notter walked free more than two weeks later as police pursued the Abu Sayyaf members holding him. Alain Aeschlimann, the Asia-Pacific operations chief of the International Committee of the Red Cross, has reported that Vagni was able to call his family last week.
"As ever, we remain very worried about Eugenio," he said in a statement last week. "We will spare no effort until Eugenio is free and the crisis resolved."
The Abu Sayyaf, which has about 400 fighters, is on a U.S. list of terrorist groups for receiving funding and training from al-Qaida militants and for its involvement in high-profile kidnappings, beheadings and deadly bomb attacks.