Teodoro sorry for delay to free hostages

MANILA, Philippines—Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro Thursday apologized for the delay in the release of the three International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) aid workers held captive by Abu Sayyaf bandits in Jolo Island, Sulu province, since Jan. 15.

But the Armed Forces’ Chief of Staff Alexander Yano said the government was not setting a timetable for the hostages’ release.

“I am asking for our people’s forgiveness and understanding,” he said in Filipino at a press briefing in Malacañang. “It’s not easy to work under this situation because we are dealing with an irrational organization.”

Teodoro said the governments of Italy and Switzerland were naturally “very concerned about the plight” of their nationals—Eugene Vagni and Andreas Notter, respectively. The third hostage is Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba.

“But I’m thankful that they understand the difficulty of the situation and have supported our efforts to secure the release of the hostages,” he said.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has directed the government negotiators to “exert and exhaust all measures to ensure the safe release of the hostages,” according to Teodoro.

He said Ms Arroyo wanted “a speedy resolution” but was aware of “the balance that needs to be done, which is to ensure the hostages’ safety.”

Abu Sayyaf commander Albader Parad has demanded that government troops withdraw from areas near where the bandits were holding out.

Early this week, he gave the government until March 31 to pull back its troops or one of the hostages would be beheaded.

‘Time running out’

Lacaba on Thursday called on the government to move quickly.

“Please tell them (the government) that if they can help, to make it faster because time is running out on us,” she told ANC television by mobile phone.

Lacaba said she and her colleagues were afraid for their lives “every minute, every second, because we don’t know when a firefight will suddenly start.”

She also said the three of them sometimes had nothing to eat because their captors were busy eluding the pursuing troops.

According to Lacaba, the hostages heard gunfire and explosions just above their heads last week, after Marine snipers fired as the bandits tried to breach a loose military cordon.

The episode sparked two days of clashes that killed three Marines and up to seven bandits.

The hostages were not harmed, but Parad later threatened to kill all of them if another clash erupted or if the military tried to rescue them.

In the same interview with ANC television Thursday, Parad repeated his earlier promise to free a hostage if troops moved farther away, and to behead one if they did not.

“They know I do what I say,” he said.

Fundraising for 2010

Said Teodoro at the press briefing: “I don’t see any positive thing that can be gained by the Abu Sayyaf if they make good their threat to behead the hostages. It would not do anybody any good.”

He also said the government had not ruled out the possibility that some local officials might be involved in kidnappings in the south, and that these activities could be aimed at raising funds for the 2010 elections.

“There could be some connection … We can surmise, but we cannot do anything about it without concrete evidence,” he said.

“And first things first: We have to secure the safe release of the hostages … We will deal with the problem later, when we have less pressing matters to [attend to].”

No timetable

At the same briefing, Yano said the government was “trying to explore all possibilities of peaceful action to recover the hostages safely.”

Yano said the government was not setting a timetable to recover Lacaba, Notter and Vagni.

“We have continued to maintain the pressure within the vicinity,” he said.

“We have seen to it that there would be no offensive action on the part of the government troops at this time … We will [give] time and space to allow peaceful measures to be undertaken.”

No pullout

On the phone from Jolo, Lt. Col. Edgard Arevalo, the newly appointed spokesperson for the hostage crisis, said the military was continuing to assess the bandits’ demand because, he pointed out, to give in would be to virtually desert the local residents.
“We have repositioned our troops as [the bandits] had demanded,” Arevalo said, adding:

“There is no need for us to pull out any further. We are virtually giving them 92 percent of Jolo.”

Logical consequence

The Associated Press quoted Arevalo as also saying that the troops might be forced to launch an assault if the bandits harmed the hostages.

“It may sound a threat, but actually it isn’t. It is but a logical consequence of what they might do,” he said. “If they’ll harm or kill the hostages, they will remove the reason for us to talk to them.”

Lt. Gen. Nelson Allaga, the highest ranking military commander involved in the ground operation to secure the hostages’ release, also said the military was not pulling out.

“The troops are staying put, awaiting further advice of development, because we have observed that the Abu Sayyaf is becoming weaker, is disintegrating and under pressure,” he said.

‘Problem is the media’

Reacting to Lacaba’s plea, Brig. Gen. Gaudencio Pangilinan, one of the military officials authorized to speak on the matter, Thursday expressed hope that the hostage crisis would be resolved before the March 31 “deadline” set by the bandits for the withdrawal of troops.

But he said the media were adding to the pressure being brought to bear on the military.

“No one can tell [if these beheading threats are true or not] but these are taken seriously by the negotiating team. But the problem is the media, which doubles the pressure on us,” Pangilinan, the chief of the military’s Civil Relations Service, told reporters in Camp Aguinaldo from Zamboanga City, where he was attending a battalion commanders’ seminar.

According to Pangilinan, it is “customary” that the media desist from airing threats and demands so as not to affect the decisions of the negotiating team.

To Lacaba’s statement that occasionally she and the other hostages had nothing to eat, Pangilinan said the military was not enforcing a food blockade in the area.

Allaga made a similar denial, rebutting the claim of police Senior Supt. Julasirim Kasim on Wednesday that a food blockade had been implemented to deprive the Abu Sayyaf of provisions.

Now in command

Allaga, the chief of the Western Mindanao Command, said he was now taking charge of the military operation vice Maj. Gen. Juancho Sabban.

Sabban has gone on leave; his superiors said it has nothing to do with Sen. Richard Gordon’s earlier criticism.

Gordon, the chair of the Philippine National Red Cross, has assailed Sabban for purportedly subverting efforts for the release of one of the hostages late last week.

Allaga said the government should not allow itself to be held hostage by the Abu Sayyaf.

“It’s only a threat. Why should we also become their hostage?” he said.

Asked to comment on the hostages’ own appeal for the withdrawal of troops from the area, Allaga said: “What’s not good is that [some government officials and the media] play up the plight of the hostages. I have been saying time and again that the hostages are already slaves, and that everything they do or say is [a result of being] under duress.”

Allaga said the media and other government officials could help in securing the hostages’ release by holding back on information.

He said media interviews with the kidnappers were beyond the control of the military, which was ending up in a bad situation.

Hostages safe

Allaga said that despite the clashes, Lacaba, Notter and Vagni were safe.

He said Chief Supt. Felizardo Serapio Jr., the head of the Western Mindanao police’s directorate for integrated police operations, was in charge of the police troops, and that Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan was supervising Task Force ICRC.

Christian V. Esguerra, Jocelyn Uy and Julie Alipala, Philippine Daily Inquirer
With reports from Associated Press and Agence France-Presse

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Published in: on March 27, 2009 at 12:42 pm  Comments Off on Teodoro sorry for delay to free hostages  
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