Red Cross hostage release talks fail

MANILA, Philippines—The fate of International Committee of the Red Cross workers Swiss Andreas Notter, Italian Eugenio Vagni, and Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba now hangs in the balance after government negotiations with the Abu Sayyaf bandit group bogged down late Thursday.

“The government is not moving (or) talking (with the Abu Sayyaf). Malacañang has done nothing. They’re leaving it to somebody who is reckless and irresponsible,” said Senator Richard Gordon in an interview with the Inquirer on Saturday.

But he said that “at least, I was able to stop the execution of the hostages.”

Gordon earlier accused Brigadier General Juancho Sabban, head of the anti-terrorism and anti-insurgency unit Task Force Comet, of subverting efforts for the safe release of one of the three aid workers held hostage for over two months by the Abu Sayyaf.

Without naming Sabban, he said a “cowboy or a John Wayne” should not be sent to start an unnecessary war.

Gordon, who was contacted by phone, disclosed to the Inquirer that he has stopped talking with Albader Parad, leader of the Abu Sayyaf group holding the ICRC workers in Jolo, Sulu. The senator said Parad’s group was not negotiating with any member of the crisis committee headed by Sulu Governor Abdusakur Tan, or any government and military official.

Asked who or what precipitated the collapse of the talks, Gordon pointed to the Armed Forces of the Philippines: “I don’t know. You ask them (military officials).”

Gordon blamed the collapse of the talks on the unprovoked attack by government troops on the Abu Sayyaf lair in Jolo on Monday.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back was the irresponsible attack on Monday, where they strutted like peacocks. They claimed that they’ve killed Albader Parad, conveniently forgetting the (retaliatory) action from the Abu Sayyaf—threatening to cut off the heads of the aid workers.”

“Would the hostages still be alive if I did not intervene? We have proof of life. Now, they are not being shot, they’re safe at the moment. The safety of lives of the hostages as well as all the soldiers is paramount,” said the senator.

Gordon said he felt “frustrated.”

“We were blindsided. Nobody is in control of the operations. We don’t know who to go to. The military is not in control,” he said.

For negotiations to resume, he advised the AFP to “send somebody who is not a reckless one.”

“Up to and until the government decides to go on a serious initiative of peace and development in the area, we’re always going to have people carrying arms, resorting to kidnappings because they have no livelihood,” he said.

Based on a gentleman’s agreement between Parad and Gordon, the military was to have pulled back at the same time that the Abu Sayyaf was releasing one of the captives, Gordon said.

With Gordon directly talking with Parad, the game plan was endorsed by AFP Chief of Staff General Alexander Yano, Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro, and Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno during a three-hour command conference with Gordon at Camp Crame in Quezon City on Wednesday night.

But Sabban, without informing his superiors or Gordon, prematurely withdrew his troops that had encircled Abu Sayyaf kidnappers on Jolo island for weeks on Thursday.

Gordon blamed Sabban and other unidentified local officials for scuttling the talks.

“(Sabban) has no equanimity in his duties, and he thinks that war is the solution to all things,” said the senator.

Gordon revealed a series of preemptive actions taken by Sabban.

Gordon said that Moro National Liberation Front leader Nur Misuari was scheduled to go to the Abu Sayyaf lair from March 18 to 30 negotiate for a peaceful settlement to the kidnapping case.

But Sabban’s troops attacked the Abu Sayyaf lair last Monday, killing three Marines and wounding 19 other soldiers.

Gordon said that there was also a “sniper attack” on Parad, prompting Parad to issue a threat in a radio interview that he would behead a hostage if the military refused to pull back.

The bandit group also suffered many casualties, Gordon later learned from Parad during a phone interview.

The last straw occurred when Sabban prematurely withdrew his troops on Thursday without informing higher authorities, thus preempting the release of a hostage.

Gordon said Sabban focused on “reckless disregard for the safety of the hostages. They in effect attacked the hostages on Monday at the expense of the lives of the hostages and our soldiers. A sniper attack was a direct attack meant to take our Albader, but failed.”

“I don’t know if he had clearance to order the attack. Who ordered the attack? We must investigate that.”

The premature pullback gave Parad’s group more leverage to make other demands.

Gordon said Parad was now asking the military to pull back further which was tantamount to pulling out two-thirds of the government troops on the island, virtually giving the bandit group effective control of Jolo.

Despite the mess supposedly created by Sabban, Gordon’s only consolation was that he was able to stop the decapitation of the hostages.

“We realized that because of that (open communication line with Parad) we saved the hostages,” he said, noting that for two months, the Red Cross was able to prevent the beheading of any of the hostages, or even discourage talk of any ransom.

“Unfortunately, the release of one hostage as proof of good faith on the part of the Abu Sayyyaf was preempted just as other initiatives for talks have been preempted. I noticed that (Sabban) had always preempted (Gordon’s moves),” said Gordon.

The senator said Parad’s group was not calling the government, but “they kept calling me, the media.”

Gordon, however, assured the hostages that he would continue his “humanitarian efforts to reach out for a peaceful solution and safe conclusion to this incident without paying any ransom.”

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile had suggested that Gordon take a low profile in the matter.

Gordon shot back, saying: “Perhaps Senate President Enrile should find out from our side what happened before he sides with a former RAM (Reform the AFP Movement) officer.”

Gordon was of course referring to Sabban.

“I did not precipitate the squabble. I previously told the highest officials of the military about the Red Cross’ observation on violence by the troops on the ground. Right after the violence on Monday, I already asked for an investigation, so that we can get a new team involved,” said Gordon.

Michael Lim Ubac, Philippine Daily Inquirer

Published in: on March 21, 2009 at 10:23 pm  Comments Off on Red Cross hostage release talks fail  
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