Roland Bigler, a Red Cross spokesman in Manila, said Sahidulla had reported that the three "appeared to be in good physical shape".

"It is a positive sign that this face-to-face contact took place," he said, declining to give further details in order not to jeopardise the safety of the hostages.

"Our policy is very clear – no ransom"

Sakur Tan,
Jolo provincial governor

The visit marks the first direct contact with the three Red Cross workers, Andreas Notter, 38, a Swiss national; Eugenio Vagni, 62, an Italian, and Mary Jean Lacaba, 37, a Filipino, since they were abducted on January 15.

Philippine officials say the hostages have since been handed over to the Abu Sayyaf, a group of Muslim fighters which Philippine and US intelligence agencies claim has links to the al Qaeda network.

The three were abducted while they were on their way to a local airport after leaving a prison where they had been inspecting a water and sanitation project.

Sakur Tan, the Jolo governor who is heading a task force overseeing the kidnapping, said negotiators had failed to secure their unconditional release.

"Our policy is very clear – no ransom," Tan told The Associated Press.

'People of peace'

The aid workers were travelling to a local airport when gunmen seized them [AFP]
Philippine officials said Sahidulla, who also heads the Red Cross in the region, had made it clear to the kidnappers that no ransom would be paid.

"I told those who are holding them that these people [being held] are here to help us. They are people of peace," she said.

She said the gunmen had not mentioned any ransom demand but asked for livelihood projects in their communities as well as peace on the island.

The Red Cross said it had previously been in contact with the three by telephone including a telephone call on Wednesday.

"They continue to sound calm and composed and say they are doing all right," Alain Aeschlimann, the Red Cross chief for Asia Pacific, said in a statement.

Julasirim Kasim, the Jolo provincial police chief, said they have identified three of the five suspects being sought by authorities in connection with the abduction, adding that one of them was a disgruntled former prison guard.

The latest abduction is the most high-profile kidnapping of foreigners since 2000, when Abu Sayyaf fighters snatched 21 people, mostly European tourists, from the Malaysian resort island of Sipadan before bringing them to Jolo.