Olongapo SubicBay BatangGapo Newscenter

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Hopes up for three Red Cross hostages

ZAMBOANGA CITY—Kidnappers on Tuesday put off a threat to execute three workers of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and Gov. Abdusakur Tan of Sulu raised the possibility that they would be freed.

The reprieve came amid the declaration by the Sulu governor of a state of emergency in the province.

Troops were later deployed back to positions encircling the hideout of the kidnappers in the Indanan forest on Jolo Island, military and police officials said.

“I have information that the three are OK,” Tan told the Philippine Daily Inquirer by phone hours after a scheduled 2 p.m. execution passed.

“They were not beheaded. There’s a possibility that they would come out alive,” he said.

“There were some last-ditch efforts by some religious leaders to save the lives of the hostages and, perhaps, the rebels listened to them,” Tan said. “We’re preparing for the worst. We’re not taking this sitting down.”

Sources in the Moro National Liberation Front and police said the hostages had been seen alive, although they were still tied up.

Albader Parad, chief of the Abu Sayyaf kidnap gang, had said he would decapitate one of the hostages unless a total withdrawal of troops from Jolo took place.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo ordered government troops not to surrender an inch to Abu Sayyaf kidnappers, said Hermogenes Esperon Jr., chief of the Presidential Management Staff and former chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

“She will never be for the pullout of the troops there,” Esperon told reporters.

Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno, who flew to Jolo Tuesday from Zamboanga City, earlier said it was impossible to carry out the kidnappers’ demand in exchange for the hostages.

The three ICRC workers—Swiss Andreas Notter, Italian Eugenio Vagni and Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba—were kidnapped on Jan. 15 while working on a project to improve water supply in the Jolo jail.

Asked what the emergency declaration meant, Tan said it empowered him to arrest members and supporters of the kidnap group. He stood pat on his previous position against paying ransom.

“If we agreed to it, there will be no end to the kidnappings,” he said.

Emergency power

The Local Government Code authorizes the provincial governor to “carry out such emergency measures as may be necessary during and in the aftermath of manmade and natural disasters and calamities.”

Asked if the state of emergency should have been declared much earlier, Esperon said: “There is a lot to gain from hindsight, but I think that should have been done.”

Esperon said Ms Arroyo did not approve even of the partial withdrawal carried out earlier. “She really did not want this kind of arrangement.”

“When you deal with kidnappers, with terrorists, you certainly have to show your strong hand also,” he said.

“But this is not to say that we will altogether disregard the safety of the hostages. There are ways of doing it but never agree to pull out the military there … Anybody who will go for that would compromise his position.”

Negotiations continuing

Esperon said he had received information that the 2 p.m. deadline set by the kidnappers had been extended following the intercession of Representatives Mujiv Hataman of party-list Anak Mindanao and Yusop Jikiri of Sulu.

“[They] are coming in to talk to some contacts again,” he said.

“But while personal ties at times help, in the end, we should not rely on [them]. We should not look at the Abu Sayyaf as a trustworthy organization. They can always back out of any agreement,” Esperon said.

In his emergency proclamation, Tan directed the police, military and civilian volunteers to set up checkpoints across the province, where a curfew also has been imposed.

The governor ordered “the conduct of general search and seizure, including arrests in the pursuit of the kidnappers and their supporters.”

The order defined the hostage-taking 10 weeks ago “as a heinous crime that deserves to be punished to the fullest extent of the law.”

It was not immediately clear if an attack or a military rescue was imminent.

The emergency declaration came after the kidnappers ignored pleas to release the hostages. They have threatened to behead one of them after the government refused their demand for security forces to withdraw from 15 Jolo villages.

There was no word from Abu Sayyaf about the fate of the hostages after the kidnappers’ 2 p.m. deadline to behead a hostage expired.

Abu Sayyaf gunmen on Tuesday said that they would execute one of the ICRC workers unless troops withdrew from the area by the deadline, despite appeals from Pope Benedict XVI and others to free the hostages.

“The Holy Father appeals for their freedom and asks the authorities to favor every peaceful solution to this dramatic episode,” the Vatican said in a statement.

Sen. Richard Gordon, chair of the Philippine National Red Cross, made a last-minute appeal to the militants to spare the hostages as the deadline passed, and he addressed the captives directly on national television.

“The whole family of the Red Cross prays for you and I’m proud of the way you’ve comported yourself,” Gordon said in the broadcast, his voice breaking and wiping away tears as he mentioned the names of the captives.

“I’m sorry I should be stronger than you because I’m not in the midst of the ordeal you’re in now,” Gordon said.

Senior Supt. Julasirim Kasim, Sulu police director, told the Inquirer that police officers and community emergency forces were redeployed to areas where they had earlier been pulled out.

He said the contingent that moved back to the two towns, areas of earlier clashes between the bandit group and government troops, included special assault units.

--By Julie Alipala - Inquirer

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