State of emergency in Sulu; attack looms

MANILA, Philippines – Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan declared yesterday a state of emergency that gives him authority to order an attack on Abu Sayyaf bandits holding hostage three workers of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) whom they have threatened to behead.

“We’ll make sure that these bandits cannot kidnap again,” Tan said. “It looks useless to communicate with them further.”

At the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI appealed yesterday to the bandits to free the three Red Cross workers.

A communiqué from the Vatican said the pontiff “wants to raise his voice and urge that humanitarian sensibility and reason prevail over violence and intimidation.”

The Vatican statement came after the terrorists threatened to behead one of the hostages unless the government withdraws its forces from Jolo, Sulu.

Tan declared a state of emergency after the deadline set by the bandits for the withdrawal of troops lapsed at 2 p.m. He said one of the gunmen told him last night that the hostages were still alive.

The military and the police, for their part, repositioned their forces in preparation for a possible rescue operation.

“The Holy Father asks for their release and calls on the authorities to favor a peaceful outcome to the tragic situation,” the communiqué said.

The Abu Sayyaf seized ICRC staff members Mary Jean Lacaba of the Philippines, Andreas Notter of Switzerland and Eugenio Vagni of Italy on Jan. 15 after they visited a water project for a jail in Jolo.

The new demand for government security forces to leave Jolo was relayed late Sunday, just hours after the military and police pulled back from a jungle area where they had cornered some 120 militants and their three hostages, Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said.

He hinted the government was ready to use force if the terrorists harm any of the hostages.

“If they harm one hostage, the situation will obviously change. If you behead one hostage, it’s like you beheaded all three already,” Puno said.

Puno said the Abu Sayyaf wants troops restricted in “one small corner” of the island, where they will be highly vulnerable and unable to protect civilians.

“Frankly, we are very disheartened by these new demands that clearly are impossible to meet,” Puno told reporters. “We would like to appeal to the (terrorists) to be reasonable.”

Puno conceded that it appeared that Abu Sayyaf was in control of the situation by toying with their fears.

Conceding to earlier Abu Sayyaf demands, the Marines withdrew to their camp last week, and police and militiamen moved back from the terrorists’ stronghold by 10 to 15 kilometers, hoping the group would release one hostage. Before the withdrawal, the bandits holding the three ICRC workers were surrounded by more than 1,000 troops.

The militants later insisted the troops must pull back to two villages near the provincial capital – a demand authorities said would lead to anarchy.

“The decision of the group is to behead if there will be no pullout,” Abu Sayyaf commander Abu Ali told AP in a cell phone text message from Jolo.

“There will be no extension of the deadline for the pullout and we have no plan to release any hostage if there will be no pullout,” he said.

The ICRC again urged the terrorists to spare its captured workers.

“All they were doing was helping people in need in your area. There is no ideology or religious law that could justify killing them,” Jakob Kellenberger, ICRC president, said.

“Their children, parents, siblings, spouses, friends, and colleagues will not give up hope of seeing them again soon,” Kellenberger added.

“The whole family of the Red Cross prays for you and I’m proud of the way you’ve comported yourself,” Sen. Richard Gordon, chairman of the Philippine National Red Cross, said on nationwide television, his voice breaking and wiping away tears as he mentioned the names of the captives. “I’m sorry I should be stronger than you because I’m not in the midst of the ordeal you’re in now,” he said.

“There is no glory in what they are doing. You (Abu Sayyaf) are just pinning yourself down. These people are not your enemies,” he said.

“They were there to help the prisoners by providing them with water and other needs,” he added.

Gordon said no Red Cross worker has been harmed deliberately in the group’s 150-year history.

“We all hope that it won’t happen. We are all praying for your (victims) safety. We enjoin all Filipinos to pray for them,” he added.

State of emergency

Tan said a state of emergency would protect the people in Sulu as well as limit the movement of the terrorists.

“We have already bended over and continue to appeal for the peaceful release of the hostages, but the kidnappers did not comply with their promises,” Tan said.

He said he lost contact with Abu Sayyaf leader Albader Parad after the lapse of the deadline.

He said that with the state of emergency, security forces would impose curfew and set up roadblocks and checkpoints at strategic areas.

The governor said the state of emergency would be lifted only after the situation normalized.

Vice-governor Anne Sahidula, another government negotiator, said that it was unlikely the kidnappers would extend their deadline.

Asked if she believed they would carry out their threat, she said “from what I have seen, they are used to doing this. It is like human life means nothing to them.”

Lt. Col. Edgard Arevalo, the military’s spokesman on the ICRC kidnapping, said Tan’s proclamation of a state of emergency opens the door to a military solution to the crisis.

Arevalo said that troops and police forces in Sulu would be authorized to conduct search and seizure operations or arrest supporters of the kidnappers.

The government earlier agreed to pull back forces around an Abu Sayyaf stronghold near Indanan to give the bandits 130 square kilometers of hilly jungle in which to maneuver.

Redeployment

Some 800 policemen and Community Emergency Forces (CEF) were redeployed in Sulu as the crisis involving the ICRC workers dragged on.

Sulu provincial police director Senior Superintendent Jul Asarin Kasim said he received an order from the Provincial Crisis Management Committee to supervise the redeployment of troops in Indanan and nearby areas.

The redeployment was carried out an hour before the 2 p.m. deadline set by the Abu Sayyaf bandits to behead one of the three ICRC workers.

“We are blocking the areas, making their (Abu Sayyaf) playground smaller,” Kasim said. “I am here on the ground and I have no information on whether or not the bandits have executed their threats to behead one of the victims.”

Palace appeals for prayer

“The President is closely monitoring the situation together with our security and civilian authorities,” Press Secretary Cerge Remonde said at a news briefing.

“We enjoin all to pray that there will be a peaceful resolution to the crisis,” he said.

Officials contacted by The STAR declined to confirm or deny reports that members of the Cabinet cluster on security were continuously meeting at the Palace.

Presidential Management Staff chief Secretary Hermogenes Esperon told reporters in a chance interview that Tan’s declaration of a state of emergency in his province was long overdue, even as he scored attempts by some quarters to give in to the extremists’ demands and have the troops pulled out.

He said a partial pullout is “repositioning but to totally pull-out, that’s really compromising the Republic itself.”

He said he believes Mrs. Arroyo doesn’t favor any withdrawal of troops surrounding the kidnappers.

“What I know is that she will never be for the pull-out of troops and whoever would push for that or recommend that would compromise his position, whether he is a governor or a high government official,” Esperon said.

When asked whether the local crisis management committee committed some lapses, he said: “It’s hard to talk from hindsight. I’m sure there would be some improvements.”

“It’s crunch time and we could not allow this to continue. We can’t allow the Abu Sayyaf to dictate on us,” Esperon said.

“Let’s not underestimate the capabilities of our soldiers,” he said.

“I’d still go for the solution of giving them no quarters,” Esperon said.

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.

Roel Pareño and James Mananghaya
With Paolo Romero, Sheila Crisostomo,
Jaime Laude, Evelyn Macairan and
Cecille Suerte Felipe, and the Associated Press

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Published in: on April 1, 2009 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on State of emergency in Sulu; attack looms  
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