Pay Abu Sayyaf P50M or attack

MANILA, Philippines — The government has two options to free the three kidnapped aid workers of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC): Pay the Abu Sayyaf bandits P50 million, or attempt a “very dangerous” rescue operation.

Cotabato City Mayor Muslimin Sema and Abdul Sahim, the chairman and secretary general of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), respectively, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer on Tuesday that the kidnappers had demanded “pangsigarilyo” [cigarette money] in exchange for the freedom of Italian Eugenio Vagni, Swiss Andreas Notter and Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba.

Sahim said the captives being held in Sulu were “separated around two weeks ago,” with Lacaba moved to Patikul town and “the two foreigners” to Indanan town.

He said he was at the crisis committee meeting on March 7 with Gov. Abdusakur Tan of Sulu province.

“The Abu Sayyaf want pangsigarilyo. They’re demanding P50 million. The governor said that can’t be. That amount is enough for them to build a cigarette factory,” Sahim said.

Lacaba, Notter and Vagni were abducted by armed men on Jan. 15 shortly after inspecting a water facility at the Jolo provincial jail.

The ICRC has neither named the kidnappers nor confirmed reported ransom demands. But an Abu Sayyaf group led by Albader Parad has said it was holding the three captives in Sulu.

Money is bottom line

Sema said he doubted that the Abu Sayyaf would waver in its demand for money, citing past kidnapping cases where the victims were freed only after payment of ransom.

“These people have nothing on their minds but money,” he said. “Money is the bottom line.”

Parad has also demanded the pullout of military personnel in Sulu.

But according to Sema, this will not happen because the Philippine and US governments — both of which maintain a military presence in Sulu — consider the island a haven for terror groups such as the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah.

The government can try to “rescue” the trio but this would be difficult to do because the bandits are “masters” of the Sulu terrain and are well armed, Sema said.

He said the separation of the three captives also complicated matters.

Both Sema and Sahim said the Abu Sayyaf bandits and the smaller groups backing them had around 500 firearms.

They said a rescue operation would also be “very dangerous,” and recalled what happened to kidnapped American missionaries Gracia and Martin Burnham in June 2002.

In the firefight in Zamboanga del Norte province between the military and the bandits, Gracia was wounded and Martin was killed. Another captive, Filipino nurse Edibora Yap, was also killed.

Nur Misuari

In another interview on Tuesday, Sema said that while the kidnapping of the ICRC workers was unfortunate and condemnable, it merely reflected the government’s inability to address the basic problem of poverty in Muslim Mindanao.

He said that had the government gone beyond just signing the 1996 peace agreement with the secessionist MNLF and “implemented it in its essence, content and principle, then perhaps there would be no problem [concerning] the Abu Sayyaf or the likes of Moro Islamic Liberation Front Commander Umbra Kato, and, on a wider scale, no problem of peace and order and kidnapping in Mindanao.”

Sema expressed doubt that Nur Misuari, the founding chairman of the MNLF and former governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), could convince the Abu Sayyaf to release the captives without conditions.

“For one, he became part of the problem. And the government is well aware of the animosity of many Bangsamoro groups, including the Abu Sayyaf, to Misuari now,” Sema said.

He added: “The other bigger and more obvious reason is the fact that we, the MNLF, failed to prove to our Moro brothers that the peace process works, and that it is the only road to achieving the aspirations of the Bangsamoro people.”

Misuari was one of the Moro personalities tapped by the government to negotiate for the release of Lacaba, Notter and Vagni.

Sema chairs the MNLF faction of 15 that broke away from Misuari.

Abu Ambri Taddik, one of the original commanders of the MNLF and now its military affairs head, was blunter in weighing Misuari’s chances of securing the release of the captives.

“He can’t even go to the mountains,” he said of Misuari. “He can’t even get near the area. He knows that many are angry with him in the Abu Sayyaf — Commander Abu, Radhullan Sahiron — and yet he’s the negotiator?” Taddik said.

4 decades old

The secessionist movement in Muslim Mindanao dates back to the early 1970s, recalled Sema, who was then one of the young Moro professionals who decided to wage war on the government.

He said that, looking back on the last four decades, he could honestly say that nothing much had changed as far as poverty in Muslim Mindanao was concerned.

“Forty years ago, when we were young and fighting the battle of our lives as Moros, we saw the extreme poverty of our people that inspired us all to take up arms and fight for our self-determination,” Sema said.

“The administration of President Fidel V. Ramos was able to convince us to [abandon] the road to war and instead take the road to peace. But after the signing of the 1996 peace agreement, what happened? Go to the ARMM and you’ll see that more than half of the population still lives in extreme poverty,” he said.

Sema recalled a conversation between a number of the then top MNLF commanders and Abu Sayyaf founding leader Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani and some of the latter’s men.

He said he and his colleagues tried to convince the Abu Sayyaf to trust the peace process and let the MNLF lead the way, but that they were met with resistance and even ridicule for accepting the government’s offer of peace.

Sema said the three-day tripartite conference of the Philippine government, the MNLF and the Organization of Islamic Conference ongoing at the Heritage Hotel in Manila, was called to discuss what had happened to the 1996 peace agreement.

He said the main question for the conference should be: “What went wrong?”

To this he had a ready answer: “They forgot to implement it in full. The government forgot the economic package of the agreement — that most important portion that would solve the problem of poverty in Muslim Mindanao.”

Command conference

On March 7, Sema presided over the first command conference of the 22 MNLF state commanders. Also in attendance were thousands of MNLF members who never surrendered their arms in spite of the 1996 peace agreement.

It was held in Pasil town in Sulu, a territory of the Tausu tribe and supposedly a stronghold of Misuari.

Sema said the command conference was called to strengthen the command structure of the MNLF.

“We cannot let the MNLF forces disintegrate or join other groups like the Abu Sayyaf,” he said. “While we say that the peace agreement failed us as a people in many ways, it is still our responsibility as MNLF leaders to make sure that they remain hopeful, that the government will see that it is never too late to implement the peace agreement in full. We do not want to go back to that stage when we are always preparing for war.”

The MNLF command conference was held only a town away from where Lacaba, Notter and Vagni are believed to be held.

The condition of the captives was not part of the agenda but it was inevitably discussed, according to MNLF secretary general Abdul Sahirin.

“Offhand, we are also waiting to see how we can get involved” in the negotiations for the captives’ release, Sahirin said, adding: “But we are not initiating any move because we are quite careful to avoid the fate of our comrade, Alvarez Isnaji.”

Sahirin was referring to the mayor of Indanan, Sulu, who was active in the negotiations for the release of kidnapped ABS-CBN Broadcasting journalist Ces Drilon and her crew in June 2008.

“All he did was help, as requested by the government, and he ended up in jail,” Sahirin said of Isnaji, who remains detained in the national police headquarters Camp Crame.

Sema said the MNLF was willing to help secure the freedom of the ICRC workers. But he pointed to the Isnaji case as a sad consequence of Moro leaders’ readiness to help release captives of the Abu Sayyaf.

He said the Bangsamoro had a formula. “But as of now, no one among our commanders will interfere in this hostage situation and act as negotiators if there’s no clear request from the government.”

Kristine L. Alave and Arlene de la Cruz, Philippine Daily Inquirer

Published in: on March 12, 2009 at 4:55 am  Comments Off on Pay Abu Sayyaf P50M or attack  
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