Gordon hits general; no hostage freed

MANILA, Philippines — Sen. Richard Gordon on Friday accused Brig. Gen. Juancho Sabban of subverting efforts for the safe release of one of the three International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) aid workers held captive by the Abu Sayyaf bandit group in Jolo, capital of the southern province of Sulu.

Gordon said Sabban “breached the chain of command” by repositioning troops under his command on Thursday without the knowledge of the military brass.

“Unfortunately … there are people who felt hurt because they can’t go ahead with war. But we can’t resolve this through war or the barrel of the gun,” the senator said in an interview over ANC.

Gordon, chairman of the Philippine National Red Cross and a member of the ICRC board of governors, said Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Alexander Yano, Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro and Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno should be “on the same page.”

He called on the three top officials assigned by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to “fix the problem” involving the kidnapping of Swiss Andreas Notter, Italian Eugenio Vagni and Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba.

“There is a problem with the hierarchy of the military. They have to control some of their people. It is important that we fix this because we’re very close [to having the victims released],” he said.

What drew the senator’s ire was Sabban’s apparent move to withdraw military troops without clearance from higher authorities. Gordon was kept out of the loop as well.

The plan earlier agreed upon was for the military to pull back at the same time that the Abu Sayyaf was releasing one of the captives.

Investigate him

Gordon said Sabban “should be investigated now.”

“[He said] he should be congratulated because he ordered a preliminary pullout without telling General Yano, and he’s blaming Secretary Puno and me,” Gordon said, quoting a text message reportedly circulated by Sabban’s camp.

Gordon said he discovered the premature withdrawal of troops when civilian volunteers asked permission from him to pull out as well.

He clarified that he did not recommend any military pullout but that it was the consensus at a meeting with Yano, Teodoro, Puno and others early this week.

“That’s what I can’t understand. I’m willing to be accountable for this, if that’s what they ask for,” the senator said.

He said he wanted the public to know that some officials were trying to sabotage the negotiations because they could not get what they wanted.

He pointed out that the Philippines’ reputation was at stake, and that the lives of the three ICRC workers were on the line.

Gordon denied that someone from the government was negotiating with the kidnappers led by Albader Parad.

“I’m not negotiating. I’m talking. I don’t have a quarrel with anyone,” he said.

Regarding the captives, Gordon said they were in a very bad fix. “I feel their anguish, but their pride is intact,” he said.

Not abandoned

Malacañang on Friday denied that the government had abandoned the three Red Cross workers to die in the hands of bandits in the jungles of Sulu.

“The government is doing what it can under very difficult premises to ensure their safety. That’s why the statement ascribed to them as saying ‘Why does the government want us to die?’ is unfair,” Press Secretary Cerge Remonde told reporters.

After more than 60 days in the bandits’ hands, Italian Eugenio Vagni tearfully lamented on Thursday that the government seemed to have abandoned him and his companions.

“Why does the government want us to die? I don’t understand,” he said.

Vagni, Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba and Swiss Andreas Notter spoke with Sen. Richard Gordon by phone from the Abu Sayyaf hideout in Indanan in Jolo.

Remonde said the military had offered security for the three aid workers before their trip to Mindanao but that they rejected it.

“As you all know, our Armed Forces sacrificed their lives for them,” he said, referring to the soldiers killed in a clash with the kidnappers.

Remonde said President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had condoled with the families of the three slain soldiers.

“It’s unfair to our killed and wounded soldiers who have sacrificed their lives for the safety of the hostages to be accused of such. Let’s be clear: The government is not the enemy here,” he said.

Enrile’s suggestion

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile said Gordon should take a low profile in the matter.

“It’s a suggestion,” Enrile said in an ambush interview, “but I would leave it to the military commanders on the ground to decide what has to be done. And if there is any input from anybody, it has to be done off-camera, so that there will be no perception that the government is not unified in handling the problem.”

“After all, the commander on the ground is the one whose neck is on the line,” Enrile said. “And you cannot dictate on a military commander in the operational area. He is beholden only to his superior. If you are not part of the chain of command, you cannot influence his judgment. He can disregard your position. He can, of course, politely accept the suggestion.”

Enrile said he was not exactly advising Gordon to distance himself from the military.

“But between the opinion of the person like me who is not in the chain of command and the superior of the commander, the commander will have to follow his superior,” he said.

All-out war

Gordon blamed military officers on the ground for the deaths of three soldiers and the wounding of 19 others in an earlier assault on the kidnappers’ lair.

He said the soldiers died because the war that should have been avoided was prematurely started.

Gordon said some officials in the military chain of command wanted all-out war on the Abu Sayyaf, and thus were jeopardizing the negotiations for the safe release of Lacaba, Notter and Vagni.

“I will report [them], but at the proper time. Not now because we are negotiating. And I want some explanations because it is very patent, and I have enough evidence,” he said.

Gordon said that if certain military officials wanted war, they should not make it appear that he was going along with it because he was “not the one in charge.”

“My problem is that I’m the one being called by the Abu Sayyaf, and I’m the one returning the call,” he said. He added that the military officials “should not feel bad about it. We should get all the hostages alive. That’s why I’m saying that we should be on the same page.”

Gordon said Yano and Teodoro knew about the problem. “They should do something about it,” he said.

Troops just waiting

Armed Forces spokesperson Lt. Col. Ernesto Torres Jr. said the troops in Jolo had initiated “significant moves” as requested and were waiting for the Abu Sayyaf to make good on the promise to release one of the captives.

Torres told reporters at Camp Aguinaldo that as of Thursday night, soldiers enclosing the kidnappers in the forested area of Indanan town had repositioned themselves to make room for negotiators to get in touch with Parad’s group.

“Our troops in the area have already made significant moves and are just expecting Parad’s group to comply with their agreement with [Gordon],” Torres said.

He described the repositioning as a “continuous movement” occurring by “grid square” or by sections, just to allow “free movement” for negotiations.

Torres said he had received word from the commander of the Marine Battalion Landing Team 8, Lt. Col. Ariel Caculitan, that as of yesterday no emissary from the hostage crisis committee had entered the area despite the pullback.

Under the “gentlemen’s agreement” between Parad and Gordon on Wednesday, the military has to reposition its troops in exchange for the freedom of at least one of the ICRC aid workers.

On Thursday, the military agreed to the pullback, saying that its paramount concern was the safety of the captives, who were taken at gunpoint on Jan. 15 after inspecting a water and sanitation project for the inmates of the provincial jail in Jolo.

Anger

Reacting to the anger of Lacaba, Notter and Vagni toward the military, Torres said their anger should be directed at their kidnappers.

“They are in this situation now because of the kidnappers. But their reaction is very understandable because we know their condition there is very hard,” he said.

In a phone conversation with Gordon on Thursday, the ICRC aid workers demanded to know what the government was doing to save them. They also accused the military of coming, not to rescue them, but to kill them.

Torres said the military was “trying its best” to rescue the captives through more peaceful means.

Jocelyn Uy and Michael Lim Ubac, Philippine Daily Inquirer
With a report from TJ Burgonio

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Published in: on March 21, 2009 at 7:01 am  Comments Off on Gordon hits general; no hostage freed  
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