In the jungles of Sulu, hostages who are mysteriously found abandoned by their captors are widely suspected to have regained their freedom through the payment of ransom. In the case of the mostly European hostages taken from the Malaysian island resort of Sipadan, the Abu Sayyaf band led by Ghalib “Robot” Andang reportedly earned a whopping $30 million, with the bulk of the amount contributed by the Libyan government. That lucrative caper, suspected to have been brokered by certain government officials who were in cahoots with the bandits, led to more kidnappings by the Abu Sayyaf.
The bandits’ main group later ventured all the way to Palawan to seize hostages from a resort. In that incident, several Filipinos also mysteriously walked free as the Abu Sayyaf dragged the remaining captives deeper into Basilan. Those who regained their freedom denied paying ransom. Left behind were several Filipinos and three Americans, one of whom was decapitated.
Today, the Abu Sayyaf leadership has been decimated, but what’s left of the group is still engaged in kidnapping. Earlier this year the band operating in Sulu seized three volunteers of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Filipina hostage was the first to be freed. The other day it was the turn of the Swiss hostage to walk free. The official version is that he managed to slip away from his captors as government forces were pursuing the bandits. The talk circulating in Mindanao is that the Abu Sayyaf had abandoned Andreas Notter after ransom was paid. Denials were issued yesterday by different offices starting with Malacañang. The fate of Italian hostage Eugenio Vagni is unknown, despite government forces supposedly coming within just 500 meters of the bandits before Notter walked free.
Paying ransom to secure the safe release of a hostage is fine if the payment also leads to the capture of the kidnappers and recovery of the ransom. Allowing bandits to enjoy the proceeds of their caper guarantees more kidnappings. In the Zamboanga peninsula and Basilan, groups apart from the Abu Sayyaf have entered the game, snatching teachers and other civilians and demanding ransom. It’s not enough to secure the release of hostages. Their captors must be found and neutralized, and any ransom paid must be recovered. Anyone who benefits from a ransom payment must be punished.
JOLO, Sulu – The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) broke its commitment on a deal to free one of the three Red Cross workers they kidnapped here once the military force repositions its troops surrounding their hideout in Indanan, Sulu.
Senator Richard Gordon, chair of the Philippine National Red Cross, said the bandits promised him to release one of the three hostages if security forces surrounding their jungle lair in the town of Indanan would pull out.
Troops have repositioned away from the ASG lair on Thursday, but the group also demanded for the pull out of the armed village guards helping the military in the rescue operation.
Swiss Andreas Notter, Italian Eugenio Vagni and Filipino woman Mary Jean Lacaba are still being held hostage by the ASG. The trio were kidnapped on January 15 after inspecting a water and sanitation project at a prison compound in Patikul, Sulu.
Three soldiers had been killed and 19 more wounded in fierce clashes earlier this week after the bandits attempted to break through the military cordon.
Military officials were getting impatient over Gordon’s frequent calls to withdraw soldiers from the town to allow negotiations with the hostage takers. The Abu Sayyaf has threatened to behead one of its hostages if the soldiers get near them or if fighting breaks out again.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) does not regret repositioning its troops in Sulu even if the ASG did not fulfill its promise of releasing one its hostages in exchange for the pull out of soldiers, a military official said Sunday.
Brigadier General Gaudencio Pangilinan, military spokesman of the International Committee on the Red Cross (ICRC) Crisis, said the safety of three Red Cross staffers is on the mind of its top brass when the decision to slacken the military cordon was made. “Ano ba naman ‘yung umtaras tayo ng konti para sa safety ng hostages,” said Pangilinan in a phone interview.
On Thursday, Marine commandos manning the military cordon against the ASG were repositioned following the request of Gordon for a pullback after bandit leader Albader Parad allegedly promised to release one of their ICRC hostages in exchange for loosening the cordon.
The pullback of troops was agreed upon during the meeting of top police, military and government officials in Camp Crame following the threats made by Parad that he would behead one of the hostages after the series of clashes that started on Monday that resulted in his wounding.
Amid the gradual pullback, the ASG did not release one of the ICRC hostages, with recent reports stating that it was because government troops are continuously closing in on them. (with a report from Aaron Recuenco)
STO. TOMAS, PANGASINAN—Malacañang Tuesday announced that Sen. Richard Gordon had agreed to bury the hatchet and work more closely with key government officials to restart efforts to secure the release of three international Red Cross workers being held by the Islamic extremist group Abu Sayyaf in Jolo Island.
Press Secretary Cerge Remonde said the agreement came during a meeting on Monday involving Gordon, Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro and Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno on Monday, four days after talks with the terrorists broke down.
“I’m happy to report that they talked and agreed to work as one,” Remonde told reporters in a briefing here.
Late last week, Gordon, who chairs the Philippine National Red Cross, threw a fit and accused Marine commander Maj. Gen. Juancho Sabban of bungling the senator’s attempts to get at least one of the hostages released by “unnecessarily provoking” an armed clash last week, then by prematurely withdrawing his troops.
Sabban denied Gordon’s charges but the military has since sent him on a two-week education tour in the United States.
“They (Gordon, Teodoro and Puno) agreed to have better and greater coordination to avoid misunderstanding,” Remonde said.
The three Red Cross workers—Italian Eugenio Vagni, Swiss Andreas Notter and Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba—were snatched by the armed group in Jolo on Jan. 15.
Remonde Tuesday maintained that the government was “doing everything right” in ensuring the safe release of the hostages.
“The government is doing everything by the book and in accordance with internationally accepted, proven and tested principles in dealing with similar situations,” he said.
“We are on top of the situation regardless of what has been said.”
Consistent with administration policy, the local crisis committee would be the main negotiator with the Abu Sayyaf, Remonde said.
Meanwhile, a military spokesperson, in a separate press briefing, said soldiers would continue to cordon a remote area of Jolo but would put off pursuit operations to give way to negotiations.
“We are holding our previous position because we would like to give way to negotiations to free the hostages,” Lt. Col. Edgard Arevalo told reporters.
Arevalo revealed that the military was also limiting food, water and other supplies to the rebels.
“The modern principle of war is sustainability. We’re only trying to wear them down by preventing reinforcements and re-supply. We’re keeping up the pressure without having to resort to offensive actions,” he told wire agency reporters.
The Abu Sayyaf, a small Islamist group with ties to regional terror network Jemaah Islamiah, had threatened to behead one of the hostages to ease military pressure after a firefight erupted last week, killing three soldiers and wounding 19 others. At least two Abu Sayyaf fighters were also reportedly killed.
I think the appeal of the Commission on Human Rights to the Abu Sayyaf to free the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) volunteers serves no purpose at this point. Diplomacy is strange to the Abu Sayyaf bandits, who behead their captives without any “introductory statement.” The very fact that the bandits targeted neutral volunteers who have selflessly given their time and energy to help the marginalized sectors of Philippine society is a clear indication that they have no respect for the Red Cross symbol and everything it represents.
Already, very few volunteers and NGOs operate in the provinces of Basilan and Sulu; and the plight of the three ICRC workers tells us what happens to those who do. After this, who else would want to serve these beautiful but terror-laden islands of Mindanao? The remaining teachers of Landang Gua in Zamboanga are already deserting their school, fearing that what happened to their co-teachers could readily happen to them. What will become of the students they leave behind? But can we really blame them? While already facing many challenges, the price of their dedicated service is very steep — their personal safety. People who seek to serve humbly and honestly do not deserve this kind of treatment.
I believe that, at this point, the much-opposed “military solution” is the best remedy against the abysmally violent Abu Sayyaf. Giving the Abu Sayyaf (through negotiations) just a hint of a possible ransom payment for the hostages’ release would only encourage its members and those who idolize them to engage in kidnapping as a profitable vocation.
Of course, this means that the Armed Forces of the Philippines should perfectly execute its rescue mission. We certainly do not need another “Martin Burnham” here. Then after this crisis, perhaps the government can focus on development efforts to reduce the “appeal” of the Abu Sayyaf’s banditry.
I don’t want to watch or hear any more stories of kidnappings and beheadings. And, I believe, so do the rest of the Filipino people. But for this to happen, every single Abu Sayyaf bandit must be hunted down. We should never allow the Abu Sayyaf to turn the culturally diverse and naturally rich island of Mindanao into a wasteland.
FRANCIS ERIC ALABA, 437-A Bayabas Extension, Punta Princesa, Cebu City