To release one hostage, AFP troops pull back

MANILA, Philippines—The military on Thursday agreed to pull back troops encircling Abu Sayyaf kidnappers on Jolo island after they promised to release one of three International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) workers held hostage for over two months.

“The safety of the ICRC workers remains the paramount concern. And if to ensure this we must adjust our deployment, then we will do so,” said Lt. Col. Ernesto Torres, Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesperson.

Torres said the military was submitting to the collective decision arrived at during a three-hour command conference by Sen. Richard Gordon on Wednesday night with police and military officials at Camp Crame national police headquarters.

Gordon said he convinced Albader Parad, the leader of the kidnappers, in a mobile phone call late Wednesday to promise to release one of the hostages if troops pulled back from an Abu Sayyaf stronghold that had been surrounded by Marines and armed village guards for weeks.

But by nightfall, there was still no word from Jolo that the kidnappers were keeping their promise.

In a phone call to Gordon on Tuesday, Parad had threatened to behead one of the hostages if the military continued to cordon off the area in the forested municipality of Indanan, where his group was holding the hostages.

“He told me he’ll behead one of the hostages if new fighting erupts,” said Gordon, head of the Philippine National Red Cross (PNRC). “If the military will carry out an assault, he’ll kill all of them.”

Fighting broke out in the area on Monday and Tuesday, leaving three soldiers and two kidnappers dead and a score wounded.

But the hostages—Swiss Andreas Notter, Italian Eugenio Vagni and Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba—were unharmed.

The three ICRC workers were taken at gunpoint on Jan. 15, after visiting the provincial jail to inspect a water and sanitation project for the inmates.

Extremely worried

In a joint statement, the ICRC and the PNRC said they were “extremely worried,” appealing to the “abductors’ sense of humanity and asking them to avoid taking any action that could endanger” the hostages.

Torres said the situation in Indanan was “becoming more volatile.”

But he stressed that the adjustment of troop positions did not mean a total pullout but simply to give negotiators “enough room and free movement.”

“We cannot describe exactly on how we will reposition but suffice to say we would loosen a bit to allow those who would negotiate to perform their tasks smoothly and unhampered,” Torres said.

The repositioning of troops could either be “sideward or backward,” he said, adding that the intensity of its operation would also be “relaxed.”

Torres added that troops would pull back without losing sight of the kidnappers and their primary objective, which was the safe recovery of the hostages.

But AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Alexander Yano said that no order had been issued yet for such movement.

“It depends upon the situation, if that is warranted on the ground to allow a peaceful resolution,” Yano said.

‘More lives at stake’

A pullback order would cramp the military in its overall fight against terrorism, said a military official, who asked not to be named for lack of authority to speak with the media.

“The repositioning will jeopardize our future dealings with these kidnappers and will only embolden them to take more hostages in the future,” he told the Philippine Daily Inquirer (parent company of “More lives will be at stake.”

Also on Thursday, the Philippine Marine Corps accorded full military honors on the three Marines killed on Monday.

The remains of Corporals Jo-Kris Fegura and Jeflor dela Torre and Private First Class Franklin Castillo were brought to the Marine barracks, Bonifacio Naval Station, in Taguig City Thursday.

The Marine commandant, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Dolorfino, led the honor ceremony.

“The Navy believes that the sacrifices of these Marines were not in vain. We may have to reposition our forces but the morale of our troops remain high and are willing to be redeployed,” Navy spokesperson Lt. Col. Edgard Arevalo said in a statement.

Jocelyn Uy, Philippine Daily Inquirer
with reports from Kristine L. Alave and Julie Alipala,
Inquirer Mindanao, and Associated Press

Published in: on March 20, 2009 at 9:45 am  Comments Off on To release one hostage, AFP troops pull back  
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