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Gunmen free child, hold 12 other Filipino hostages

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MANILA, Philippines >> Armed tribesmen freed a boy after getting food and water Monday but kept at least 12 other hostages in jungle captivity to demand the release of jailed relatives and friends in the southern Philippines, a police official said.

The release of 12-year-old Marvin Jay Corvera encouraged officials to continue negotiating with five Manobo tribesmen for the freedom of the captives snatched at gunpoint Friday and taken to a hilly forest in Prosperidad town in southeastern Agusan del Sur province.

Most of the captives are grade school teachers, but one still being held is a sick 10-year-old girl.

Army and police special forces have been deployed in case the talks collapse.

After a father of one of the hostage-takers delivered food, water and medicine, the gunmen allowed the man to bring Marvin with him to officials overseeing the hostage crisis. The child was unharmed but was starving and appeared stunned from three days of captivity, police Senior Superintendent Nestor Fajura said.

“This is very positive, very encouraging,” Fajura told The Associated Press by telephone from Prosperidad, about 515 miles (830 kilometers) southeast of Manila.

“Even if there’s just a thread of hope, we’ll go for negotiations and not a tactical operation,” he said.

Army and police sharpshooters and a special rescue contingent have been deployed in unspecified areas and could spring into action anytime needed, officials said.

“We are ready there,” military chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Oban told reporters in Manila. “But we hope that we can resolve it very, very peacefully.”

The gunmen sent two hostages to town to get food and water Sunday, threatening to harm the rest of the captives if the men did not return. Authorities, however, did not allow the two men to return for their safety and decided to ask relatives of the hostage-takers to deliver the food, water and medicine for a 10-year-old girl stricken with fever.

Fajura said he talked to the girl, Rein Fe Cabantac, by cellphone late Sunday and was told the gunmen were treating her well. “I’m OK, they covered me with blanket because it’s cold and I have fever,” he quoted the child as saying.

It is the latest hostage crisis to grip the Philippines in recent years. A hostage-taking of a busload of Hong Kong tourists in Manila last August ended in disaster with the death of eight of the captives, angering China. The kidnapper — a dismissed policeman who wanted his job back — was shot to death by police commandos.

The Agusan hostage-takers have demanded the release of tribal leader Jobert “Ondo” Perez, who was jailed with three other tribesmen for taking 79 people hostage in 2009 over a long-running clan feud. Officials have told the gunmen a local court was handling the case and promised to take steps to try to speed up its resolution.

Clan feuds, fueled by weak law enforcement in remote regions awash with illegal firearms, have often erupted into deadly clashes, kidnappings and hostage-takings in the southern Philippines. The violence underscores the complexity of security problems in the south, where troops have been battling Muslim and communist insurgents, along with al-Qaida-linked militants, for years.

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