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'A day I thought may never come': freed Italian Red Cross worker

CIA chief meets Philippine president
US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director Leon Panetta met Philippine President Gloria Arroyo on Sunday for a closed-door security meeting, officials said. Panetta was escorted by Filipino Defence Secretary Gilberto Teodoro and Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo as they arrived at the Malacanang presidential palace, officials said. There were no immediate details on what transpired, but Arroyo's chief aide, Eduardo Ermita, earlier said the visit was to re-affirm Washington's commitment to its Southeast Asian anti-terror partner. Panetta's visit came just hours after Al Qaeda-linked Islamic militants freed an Italian Red Cross worker they had held for six months in the southern Philippines. It also came just days after a series of bomb attacks in the south blamed on another group of Muslim separatist rebels left at least eight dead and over a hundred wounded. The Foreign Department in a statement said Arroyo has meanwhile accepted an invitation to visit the White House on July 30, becoming the first Southeast Asian leader to have an audience with President Barack Obama. Arroyo's visit "is an affirmation of the strong partnership between the two countries that share historical and cultural ties and common democratic values," the department said in a statement. Apart from joint counter-terrorism efforts, Arroyo is expected to discuss with Obama her government's poverty alleviation and economic programmes, it said. A senior department official, who asked not to be named, said the two leaders would discuss bilateral defence, security, economic and political issues. Diplomatic ties were strained after a US Marine who had participated in joint manoeuvres in the Philippines was convicted of raping a Filipino woman in 2006. An appeals court overturned the decision early this year after the victim recanted her statement. US troops have been rotating in the southern Philippines since 2003 for joint anti-terror training with their Filipino counterparts.
by Staff Writers
Zamboanga (AFP) July 12, 2009
Gaunt and haggard, freed Italian aid worker Eugenio Vagni said Sunday his release after being held for six months by armed Islamic militants in the Philippines was a day he thought might never come.

Vagni, 62, was kidnapped in January along with two Red Cross colleagues by Abu Sayyaf rebels -- who have reported links to Al-Qaeda -- in the restive south of the country and held for 179 days in harsh, rugged jungle terrain.

Appearing before reporters here after his release early Sunday, a bearded and thin-looking Vagni was at times emotional as he thanked the Philippine military and local officials for working to free him unharmed.

"I am happy because I am free. I thank all the people that led to this happening," Vagni said, struggling to remain composed as he talked of his excitement at seeing his wife and family.

"I thought it would never happen. I called my wife, and I told her, 'I love you'."

He also extended his condolences to the families of several soldiers who died in clashes with Abu Sayyaf rebels during pursuit operations over the past six months.

Vagni later flew to Manila, where he was tearfully reunited with his wife and young daughter. He was seen tightly hugging and kissing the two on the tarmac, an AFP photographer said.

An engineer by profession who worked in the private sector before joining the Red Cross, Vagni said he lost over 40 pounds (18 kilos) in captivity, surviving on mostly rice and fish, and at one point contracted cholera.

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) spokeswoman Anastasia Isyuk said Vagni was doing "remarkably well" despite his ordeal and concerns for his health -- he has a hernia and there were earlier fears about his state of mind.

The spokeswoman declined to discuss the terms of his release, but stressed that the international aid agency did not pay a ransom for his release from Jolo island.

Local television station ABS-CBN quoted unnamed sources saying Vagni would be swapped for the two wives of Abu Sayyaf leader Albader Parad, who were arrested along with four other kidnapping suspects in Jolo on Tuesday.

Officials did not confirm the claim and the Italian embassy has not disclosed when Vagni might return to his home country.

ICRC's head of delegation to the Philippines, Jean-Daniel Tauxe, said the group was "relieved and happy" that Vagni had finally got out, stressing it would continue its humanitarian programmes in the country.

Vagni was seized by the Abu Sayyaf militant group with ICRC colleagues Andreas Notter of Switzerland and Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba during a humanitarian mission on Jolo, a hotbed of militant activity.

The gunmen freed his two fellow hostages separately under unexplained circumstances in April.

They finally turned Vagni over to Jolo vice-governor Nur-Ana Sahidulla and he was taken to a military hospital for precautionary medical checks before being flow to nearby Zamboanga city, en route to Manila.

Sahidulla, who had previously negotiated for Vagni's release, was alerted by the Abu Sayyaf to proceed to a village near Maimbung town after midnight, where officials found the Italian, a navy spokesman said.

Welcoming Vagni's release, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said his freeing was not the result of military action, which his government had rejected.

The Abu Sayyaf had previously threatened to behead one of its three captives if government forces did not withdraw. That demand was initially rejected, but Manila later relented after public appeals by the captives' families.

Abu Sayyaf, which has regularly kidnapped foreigners and Christians, has been accused of having links to Al-Qaeda as well as the militant Jemaah Islamiyah network.

That group was blamed for the 2002 bombing on the Indonesian island of Bali which claimed the lives of 202 people from 22 countries, including 88 Australians.

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