Gov’t partially gives in to kidnappers’ demand

MANILA – The Philippine government about 800 police and militiamen out of a cordon surrounding kidnappers holding three Red Cross workers on a remote southern island on Saturday, partially giving in to the Islamist militants’ demands.

Interior secretary Ronaldo Puno told reporters the government had made a “difficult” decision to abandon positions that would allow the Abu Sayyaf rebels access to the island’s coastline, but kept about 1,500 other troops posted along an inland highway.

Puno had said on Friday that the government would not give in to the rebels’ demand to pull back from positions on remote Jolo island. The Red Cross staff have been held for over two months.

“We are taking risks,” Puno said after meeting security officials at the southern port city of Zamboanga. Other officials said the navy would patrol the waters off Jolo but the cordon would not be as tight.

Officials said Puno was hoping the partial agreement to the rebel demand would allow for fresh negotiations for the release of the three members of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) — Swiss national Andreas Notter, Italian Eugenio Vagni and Filipina Mary Jean Lacaba.

They were kidnaped on Jan. 15 after inspecting a prison on Jolo and are being held by an estimated 100 heavily armed rebels in a 5 sq km area in the island’s rugged jungles.

“We are giving them a breathing space where they feel they’re safe to negotiate,” Puno said. “It’s a difficult decision and not all agreed to the decision.”

The about-turn came after ICRC president Jakob Kellenberger spoke to Philippines Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita and asked him to ensure that the authorities do everything in their power to save the hostages.

“The ICRC’s priority is that Mary Jean, Eugenio and Andreas remain safe and that they be able to return to their families, who miss them desperately,” Kellenberger said in a statement on the ICRC website (http://www.icrc.org/).

The al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf has said it was not demanding any ransom for the release of the three Red Cross workers but asked only for security forces to pull out of the island.

The rebels had threatened to kill one of the hostages if the security cordon around them is not removed by March 31, local officials on Jolo have said.

The Abu Sayyaf has a history of beheading captives. In 2001, American Guillermo Sobero was executed after the government turned down attempts by the rebels to negotiate for hostages on the nearby island of Basilan.

Manny Mogato, Reuters

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Published in: on March 28, 2009 at 10:47 pm  Comments Off on Gov’t partially gives in to kidnappers’ demand  
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