‘Define chain of command in hostage crisis’

MANILA, Philippines — Who is the civilian authority in charge of the hostage crisis in Sulu?

Senator Rodolfo Biazon asked President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on Sunday to clarify this issue and other details so that the military would not end up being confused in their bid to rescue three international Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) who have been held captive by the Abu Sayyaf for three months.

Biazon’s call came amid bickering between Senator Richard Gordon, chair of the Philippine National Red Cross, and Major General Juancho Sabban, head of the counter-terrorism Task Force Comet, whose troops are at the frontlines in Sulu.

Gordon blamed Sabban last week for the scuttling of talks, which came after the “unprovoked attack” by government troops on the Abu Sayyaf in Jolo last Monday as well as the premature withdrawal of Sabban’s troops last Thursday.

“The President must define clearly the chain of command from whom ground commanders should receive their orders and secondly and more importantly, she must define clearly the orders that the ground commanders would carry out,” Biazon said in a phone interview.

Biazon stressed that the military had “specific policies” to implement regarding terrorist groups like the Abu Sayyaf and this included “a no negotiation policy.”

The senator, a retired military general who was an Armed Forces chief of staff during President Corazon Aquino’s term, said that he was bothered by recent developments in efforts to free the ICRC workers — Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba, Swiss Andreas Notter and Italian Eugenio Vagni.

“I’m not against negotiations but the guidelines should be made clear for the soldiers to understand on the ground,” he said.

Biazon wanted to know who was the civilian authority in charge because he said he knew it to be Sulu Governor Sakur Tan, head of the crisis committee.

“What is Governor Tan’s role? Has he been relieved? Who is in charge? Why is now Senator Gordon making direct contact with the military and terrorists?” Biazon asked.

“I will not question Senator Gordon’s presence there but who is giving the orders and what are the orders?” he also said.

Biazon said that when he was still in the military, he had been confronted with the problem of “politicians meddling in what I have to do as a former ground commander.”

“Who is the crisis manager? Is it the Secretary of National Defense or is it the Secretary of Interior and Local Government, or is it a senator?” Biazon said.

“With that mixture of authority above my head, I as a ground commander can be confused,” he said.

Biazon, who chairs the Senate committee on national defense, said that he found the current situation in the hostage crisis to be “unfortunate” as he warned that the situation could not be allowed to be muddled up as this “can result to dire consequences for the hostages.”

“To blame the ground commander for the death of the three Marine soldiers last week is unfair,” said Biazon.

On Gordon’s allegation that Sabban was subverting efforts for the safe release of the hostages, Biazon asked a string of questions: “What is being sabotaged? Was it the negotiations or is it the situation in Jolo; What is the motive?; and Who is sabotaging it?”

Meanwhile, Gordon told dzBB radio that he came into the picture when there were already threats to kill the hostages.

“That is the time I really went to high gear and started talking. Kasi dapat trabaho ng gobyerno yan pero [That should be the job of government but…] who else is doing it? Nobody is talking with them,” Gordon said of the Abu Sayyaf.

Gordon was asked whether the proposal then for the military to pull back in exchange for the release of one hostage was tantamount to a negotiation.

“I’m trying to save lives. Walang tayong ransom (We don’t have ransom),” Gordon told dzBB radio.

He said he got upset because Sabban ordered the withdrawal of the troops and thus prevented the release of one hostage.

He stressed that “there are no negotiators” and as for the crisis management committee, he said it did right by trying to put pressure on the kidnappers “but don’t attack unless there is a threat to the lives of the hostages.”

Asked whether the government should do away with the crisis committee then and give the task to him instead, Gordon said: “Somebody has got to make a decision on what to do. I cannot be the one to talk to them. I was only forced to come in the picture because of the threat of the Abu Sayyaf to cut the heads of the hostages.”

He said the Abu Sayyaf was the one talking to him.

Asked who called the shots then, Gordon said it was better to ask that question to the government, noting that he was told that sometimes, it was the crisis committee or Sulu Governor Tan.

“All I’ m saying is we have to get our acts together. It can’t be that we will have rogue commanders who had been ordered by his chief of staff to stay put and yet he did not follow orders,” the senator said.

Asked whether talks could resume, Gordon said: “I do not know. I am not in charge.”

Christine Avendaño, Philippine Daily Inquirer

Published in: on March 22, 2009 at 10:42 pm  Comments Off on ‘Define chain of command in hostage crisis’  
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