"They were running all over the place," he said, adding that he had not spoken to the hostages themselves but had spoken to an Abu Sayyaf commander, Albader Parad.

"They are alive, they are very, very tired and very sleepy"

Richard Gordon, head of the Philippine Red Cross

Earlier, a man claiming to be Parad, phoned a Philippine TV network to say that three hostages remained in their captivity and were safe.

Speaking to the ABS-CBN network the man rejected reports by military officials that he might have been killed in the clashes earlier this week, although he said he had been wounded.

The TV network said he had warned that further clashes might endanger the three hostages held captive on the remote Jolo island since mid-January.

His comments came after two days of fierce clashes between the military and suspected Abu Sayyaf fighters in jungle near the Jolo township of Indanan.

Military officials said three soldiers and three fighters were killed in the fighting, with more than a dozen troops wounded.

An Abu Sayyaf spokesman said further clashes could endanger the hostages [Reuters]
A military spokesman denied the fighting was a rescue attempt, but said that it was the closest government forces had come to locating the hostages.

After the fighting the military said it had found tents and other equipment belonging to the kidnapped aid workers.

Andreas Notter of Switzerland, Eugenio Vagni of Italy and Mary-Jean Lacaba of the Philippines were kidnapped on January 15 while on their way to a local airport after leaving a prison where they had been inspecting a water and sanitation project.

Local Philippine officials have been trying to negotiate the release of the three.

But the Abu Sayyaf, suspected of having links with al-Qaeda, wants the military to call off its operations against them before entering any negotiation, a demand the government has rejected.

Safety fears

Anastasia Isyuk, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Manila, said the organisation was concerned about the safety of the three hostages.

"We appeal to those involved in the resolution of this crisis to consider the safety of our colleagues," Isyuk told Reuters on Tuesday.

"We're hoping that we could get direct contact with them as soon as possible."

The Abu Sayyaf group has been blamed for a string of high-profile kidnappings and bomb attacks, including the 2004 bombing of a passenger ferry that killed over 100 in Manila Bay.

It has kidnapped dozens of foreigners, businessmen and religious workers over the past decade and is on the US government's list of foreign terrorist organisations.