Government troops pull back to save ICRC hostages

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines – The government has agreed to withdraw troops from a jungle area in Indanan, Sulu in a bid to save three kidnapped Red Cross workers threatened with beheading.

Interior and Local Government Secretary Ronaldo Puno said the troop withdrawal demanded by the kidnappers, which began yesterday, should be completed within 36 hours, clearing the path for one of the three captives to be freed.

“This is a win-win solution for the moment, it will allow some breathing space,” Puno said.

“I’m afraid we cannot give in to all the demands of the kidnappers because they are not reasonable,” he said without elaborating.

“What we are offering today is a little breathing space for everybody where there will be no threat, no risk to the kidnappers but at the same time we will be able to protect the citizens who want to continue their normal lives,” Puno added.

Sen. Richard Gordon, chairman of the Philippine National Red Cross, said he welcomed the development.

“I don’t want to comment anymore because when you do your duty, a lot of people get envious and criticize, even if I can actually take part because I am from the Red Cross,” he said.

He said he would join today’s inter-faith rally at the Plaza Miranda in Manila to pray for the release of the hostages.

Puno said about 600 to 800 police and pro-government militiamen who have cordoned off the jungle area where the hostages are believed to be holed up would pull back to allow the kidnappers to release the hostages.

Puno said the pullout would give the Abu Sayyaf an area of around 120 to 140 square kilometers free from military aggression.

‘Bending backwards’

“We have decided to remove the portion of the cordon surrounding them,” Puno told reporters here.

“I think we are more than bending over backwards in order that the kidnappers will not feel threatened,” he said.

The Abu Sayyaf seized Filipina Mary Jean Lacaba, Swiss Andreas Notter and Italian Eugenio Vagni last Jan. 15.

Abu Sayyaf leader Albader Parad has threatened to behead one of them unless the military withdraws from the area by tomorrow, and said one hostage would be set free if the demand was met.

Puno said the decision to move the troops came after an extensive meeting earlier yesterday with Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro, Armed Forces Chief Gen. Alexander Yano, Philippine National Police Chief Director General Jesus Versoza and Sulu Gov. Sakur Tan.

“The extensive meeting this morning was to assess the entire situation to see whether there is anything further that can be done to push forward the process of negotiation and to convince the kidnappers to go the path of negotiation and discussion rather than to engage in anything violent and do anything haphazard. Let’s try to deal with everything rationally,” Puno told newsmen.

“But certainly we cannot agree to a complete pullout,” Tan said.

“We are not entirely happy about doing this, but we are taking a chance that perhaps the kidnappers are serious in their desire for a peaceful solution to this, that they actually want this thing to be solved in a rational manner rather than a violent way,” he said.

Yesterday’s development represented a major turnaround for the government, coming just a day after Puno himself declared there was “no possibility” the government would give in to the rebels’ demands.

ICRC head’s appeal

The development also came after the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) issued a rare public appeal for the Abu Sayyaf to unconditionally free the hostages.

The ICRC rarely speaks out on political issues for fear of jeopardizing its neutrality.

“I am asking for their safe, unconditional and immediate release,” Jakob Kellenberger said in a statement late Friday.

“It is impossible to understand what the kidnappers could possibly achieve by hurting them,” he said.

“I am very concerned by the threats of the kidnappers,” said Kellenberger, a former Swiss diplomat.

Kellenberger also asked Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita to ensure the country does everything possible to save the lives of the hostages, the ICRC said in a statement issued in Geneva.

“In particular, the ICRC president asked that the authorities consider the abductors’ demand regarding the position of troops,” it said.

The ICRC is often a discreet presence in the countries in which it operates, rarely speaking out in order to uphold its neutrality.

Earlier Friday, ABS-CBN television broadcast fresh footage of the hostages looking haggard. It was not clear when the images were filmed, but the broadcaster said it was proof that the three remained alive.

Puno said yesterday the police officers would return to barracks some 15 kilometers away from the jungle area, while the Marines had already been repositioned.

“We are also asking them (the kidnappers) to comply with their earlier promise as a sign of good faith,” he said.

Puno stressed that troops would not leave the island altogether, but would continue to secure towns and villages there.

He also denied that the government forces have imposed a food blockade in the area.

He said they have been allowing food and medicine to trickle into the area where the Abu Sayyaf and their hostages are believed holed out.

A military spokesman said in Manila this week that security forces were limiting food, water and other supplies to the rebels holding the ICRC workers in an attempt to force their release.

Although soldiers have stopped chasing the Abu Sayyaf rebels, they surrounded them in a remote region of Sulu and stepped up pressure on them, the spokesman said.

Parad’s group tried to break through the cordon earlier this month, triggering clashes that left three Marines dead and 19 others wounded, and an undetermined number of casualties on the rebels’ side. It was after this encounter that the terror group threatened to behead one of the hostages.

Parad was also reportedly wounded in the clashes, although he has defiantly taunted troops in calls to radio and television stations the past week.

Founded in the 1990s by Afghan-trained firebrand Abubakar Abdurajak Janjalani to fight for an independent Islamic state, the Abu Sayyaf is the smallest but most radical of Muslim groups in Mindanao.

Janjalani was killed in a clash with police in 1998 and the group degenerated into a terrorist organization specializing in bombings, extortion and high profile kidnappings.

It is blamed for the country’s worst terrorist attacks, and is believed to have established links with the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) group. The group has been known to behead its captives.

Roel Pareño, with Jaime Laude
The Philippine Star

Published in: on March 29, 2009 at 11:19 am  Comments Off on Government troops pull back to save ICRC hostages  
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