For hostages’ release, troops will pull out

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines — The government has agreed to pull out troops cordoning off an area in Barangay Kuppong in Indanan, Sulu, where Abu Sayyaf bandits are holding captive three aid workers of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The “very big, dramatic decision,” announced Saturday by Interior and Local Government Secretary Ronaldo Puno, was made after ICRC president Jakob Kellenberger made a personal appeal for the safe release of Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba, Swiss Andreas Notter and Italian Eugenio Vagni.

Asked when the pullout would take place, Gov. Abdusakur Tan of Sulo said it would be as soon as he returned to the province, which was Saturday afternoon.

Puno told reporters at the Garden Orchid Hotel in this key southern city that the decision was aimed at offering “breathing space” to the Abu Sayyaf so that peaceful negotiations could start for the release of the hostages.

He said government troops would provide the Abu Sayyaf “about 120 to 140 square kilometers of a non-aggressive area of operation” starting Saturday.

Puno said that if the Abu Sayyaf bandits “still don’t feel safe in that area” then that would show they had other intentions.

There will be no total pullout of soldiers from Sulu province, Puno added, explaining the decision reached at a meeting with officials here Saturday morning.

‘Very big concession’

“What we are offering today is a period of breathing space for everybody, where there will be no threat and no risk to the kidnappers, but at the same time we’ll be able to protect the citizens who want to live normal lives,” he said.

Puno said the government was “more than just bending backward on this move.”

“This is a very, very big, dramatic and important concession being made by the government in order that the kidnappers will not feel threatened, will not be afraid of any offensive action to be taken by any of the forces in the area,” he said.

Puno said he was hoping that after Saturday’s meeting, the kidnappers would “release one hostage as they had earlier agreed with Senator Gordon, and further negotiations can resume.”

Senator Richard Gordon is the chair of the Philippine Red Cross.

Lacaba, Notter and Vagni have been held captive for more than two months and are under threat of beheading if the government does not withdraw its troops by March 31.

They were taken at gunpoint on Jan. 15, shortly after inspecting a water and sanitation facility at the provincial jail in the Sulu capital town of Jolo.

Puno said the decision to pull out troops was not easy: “This is a decision that was made, discussed and confirmed by the Department of National Defense, myself, the PNP [Philippine National Police], the AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] and with Governor Abdusakur Tan. So we are doing this movement beginning today (Saturday), and we agreed that this is a very difficult step to make.”

Showing a map he had earlier presented at the national police headquarters Camp Crame in Metro Manila, Puno pointed to parallel lines that he said showed the position of government forces, including militiamen.

He said the troops would be repositioned near the villages of Santol, Tagbak and Dulong Semento.

“The police and civilian volunteers maintaining about 40 square kilometers of cordon will have to vacate the area,” he said.

Soldiers involved in humanitarian projects in Kuppong will also be withdrawn, he added.

Governor Tan said that about 800 civilian volunteers would be pulled out. He said the decision was a “complete turnaround” but was “the best for the province.”

“Certainly, we cannot also completely agree to their [kidnappers’] demand of a complete pullout of all troops in the province and bring them to only two areas, the areas of Santol and Tagbak that constitute three to four percent in terms of land area,” Tan said. “That will mean leaving the area open to everything.”

Tan said that in a recent conversation with bandit commander Albader Parad, he was told that the Abu Sayyaf would readily know whether the government had complied with the demand or not.

“They know the number of police personnel in each and every municipality,” he said.

Initial resistance

Puno said the officials involved in the decision were “not entirely happy about doing this” pullout decision and certain military officials had initially resisted the idea.

“There was a lot of discussion, and some among [those] in the command did not agree with the proposal. But in the end, we convinced everyone,” he said.

Puno described the decision as part of “taking a chance.”

“Perhaps the kidnappers are serious in their desire for a peaceful solution to this, and they want this to be resolved in a rational than a violent manner … This move is proof of our desire to resolve this,” he said.

The Abu Sayyaf had said it is not demanding ransom but only the withdrawal of government forces for the release of Lacaba, Notter and Vagni.

The kidnappers have threatened to behead one of the hostages if the security cordon around them is not removed.

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

Julie Alipala, Philippine Daily Inquirer
With a report from Reuters
and editing by

Published in: on March 29, 2009 at 8:41 am  Comments Off on For hostages’ release, troops will pull out  
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