Battle for Red Cross hostages erupts

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines — The leader of an Abu Sayyaf bandit group holding three Red Cross workers hostage for two months may have been wounded or possibly killed Monday when the group tried to break out of a military cordon on Jolo Island, the military said.

Up to late Monday night, there was no official word on the fate of Albader Parad, but the military said the hostages were not in the vicinity of the gun battle that erupted at around 11 a.m. in Timahu village in Indanan.

When asked by the Philippine Daily Inquirer about reports that Parad was dead, Armed Forces Civil Relations Office chief Brig. Gen. Gaudencio Pangilinan said, “It’s a raw report, and we don’t have any official confirmation.”

Two of Parad’s men were also reported either killed or wounded, the military said.

A civilian volunteer working with the government in the area where the fighting occurred said “both sides suffered casualties.”

“Two military ambulances made two rounds in picking up the wounded soldiers,” said the informant, who asked not to be identified because he said he had no authority to speak to reporters.

The military said no soldiers were wounded in the clash with at least 10 gunmen.

There have been several instances in which Abu Sayyaf leaders were reported killed in clashes but those reports later proved to be untrue.

The deputy secretary for political affairs of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), Abu Ambri Taddik, said he got several calls from his men in the Indanan-Patikul area telling him about the death of Parad.

“I told them to verify and instructed them to call me again if they are 100 percent sure that Parad was indeed hit by snipers of the Philippine Marines,” Taddik said.

He said he called his informants again at 3 p.m. but there was no further news.

‘Out of reach’

Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno, in a chance interview in Zamboanga City, could not say whether Parad had been killed.

“There are reports like that, yes,” Puno said. “We will leave it to the military and the authorities on the ground, particularly Sulu Governor Abdusakur Tan, to make a specific report.”

The three cell phones used by Parad in contacting the media and members of the hostages’ families were unreachable. Two of the phones did not even ring. The third initially kept on ringing. Later, it was also out of reach.

The hostages — Swiss Andreas Notter, Italian Eugenio Vagni and Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba, all working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) — were taken at gunpoint on Jan. 15 while on their way to the Jolo Airport. They had just visited the provincial jail to inspect a water and sanitation project for the inmates.

Officials of the MNLF, a former insurgent group which has signed a peace deal with the government, said last week the Abu Sayyaf kidnappers wanted a ransom of P50 million for their hostages.

The government has not confirmed such a demand but says it opposes paying money to kidnappers.

Relatives of Lacaba called up Sen. Richard Gordon to ask for news about the hostages. Most of the relatives were crying on the phone, Gordon said.

“They are worried, we are all worried. I just came from the office of the ICRC and we are all worried that this may change the complexion of the situation and put our ICRC people in graver danger,” said Gordon, who is among those involved in efforts to secure the captives’ freedom.

Anything could happen at this point, Gordon said.

“Remember that Parad is big in their organization, and internally [among the Abu Sayyaf] this will have an impact on the handling of the hostages and we are very worried and concerned,” Gordon said.

The Inquirer informant who said both sides had suffered casualties said the fighting occurred not in Timahu but in Tubig Dacula village, also in Indanan.

The informant said four Abu Sayyaf groups, including Parad’s, were operating in Indanan and that Tubig Dacula was where the hostages were kept.

“We don’t have official information about what happened to the three captives,” the informant said.

Citing intelligence reports, Pangilinan said Parad’s group was trying to break out of a “constricted” area about three kilometers northwest of Mt. Tumatangis when the fighting began.

“Reports from the ground informed us that Parad was wounded, if not killed, in the encounter in an attempt to get out of the constricted area,” Pangilinan told reporters during a media trip to Camp O’ Donnell in Capas, Tarlac.

By “constricted” he meant that pockets of soldiers had cordoned off the area where Parad was believed holding the hostages.

Not close, not far

Pangilinan said the military had made sure its positions were “not too close” as to initiate a fight and endanger the hostages, and “not too far” either as to allow the Abu Sayyaf to slip away.

Pangilinan said Parad and his men could have been looking for a gap to slip through the “cordon” when they were intercepted by soldiers.

Parad was seen during the encounter and was possibly wounded in the intermittent exchange of shots that ended at noon, he said.

“But these are intelligence reports that we have to verify,” Pangilinan said, adding the Abu Sayyaf bandits were not with their hostages during the firefight.

He said the three hostages remained intact and were sighted in areas near Mount Taran.

Senior Supt. Julasirim Kasim, Sulu police chief, said he also received reports Parad was killed, “but there is no official confirmation from my men on the ground.”

The Abu Sayyaf, which has about 400 members, is on the US list of terrorist organizations for its links to the al-Qaeda terror network and involvement in kidnappings, bombings and beheadings.

Julie Alipala, Jocelyn Uy and Arlyn dela Cruz, Philippine Daily Inquirer.
With report from The Associated Press and Reuters

Published in: on March 17, 2009 at 6:54 am  Comments Off on Battle for Red Cross hostages erupts  
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