Philippine troops clashed Thursday with al-Qaida-linked militants who have held an Italian Red Cross worker hostage for nearly five months, but there was no immediate word on casualties, the military said.
It was not clear if ailing hostage Eugenio Vagni, 62, was with the group of about 150 Abu Sayyaf gunmen when they engaged marines in the gunfight near Jolo Island's Indanan Township, a jungle militant stronghold, spokeswoman 1st Lt. Steffani Cacho said.
The clash that kicked off before dawn Thursday was still raging hours later, and had caused casualties on both sides, she said, without elaborating.
Vagni was one of three workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross who were kidnapped on Jolo, an impoverished Muslim region 590 miles (950 kilometers) south of Manila, on Jan. 15. Abu Sayyaf militants led by Pula Jumdail, who goes by the nom de guerre Dr. Abu, freed the others other two _ Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba and Swiss Andreas Notter, in April.
Jolo Gov. Abdusakur Tan has given troops and police permission to rescue Vagni, who is suffering from hypertension and a hernia, but has not, stopped local Muslim preachers from trying to negotiate his release.
The Abu Sayyaf and its allies have turned to kidnappings to make money in recent years.
Philippine and US security officials fear ransom payments could revive the group, which has been weakened by years of US-backed offensives on Jolo and outlying islands.
The Abu Sayyaf, which has about 400 fighters, is believed to have raised more than $1.5 million last year through ransom.
Washington has blacklisted the Abu Sayyaf as a terrorist organization because of its al-Qaida links and involvement in many terrorist attacks, including those that have victimized Americans.