Abus, hostages desert hideout

MANILA, Philippines—Abu Sayyaf kidnappers have slipped out of their Indanan forest hideout on Jolo Island under cover of darkness with their three Red Cross hostages in tow, local authorities said Wednesday.

Still, officials on Wednesday sought proof of life from the abductors following reported sightings of the hostages late Tuesday. The military also deferred any rescue operation.

Sen. Richard Gordon said the kidnappers had sent him text messages asking why government forces had not pulled out of Jolo, but did not give details on the fate of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) workers.

“I haven’t received any proof of life. I only have text messages. I want to talk to the three. It’s a measure to rebuild confidence,” said Gordon, chair of the Philippine National Red Cross.

The military also is seeking confirmation of the report by Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan that the kidnappers did not carry out their threat to behead Italian Eugenio Vagni, Swiss Andreas Notter and Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba on Tuesday.

“The military has not so far received any reports on the beheading of any of the ICRC kidnap victims although we are still looking for any proof of life,” said Lt. Col. Edgard Arevalo, a military spokesperson based in Jolo.

On Wednesday, Tan said he had been receiving reports that Notter had either been wounded or killed while the kidnappers were trying to escape but could not confirm them.

“Based on the last call I received (from the kidnappers) late Tuesday afternoon, I believe they are still alive,” Tan said.

The kidnappers had threatened to start decapitating the hostages at 2 p.m. on Tuesday unless the military withdrew from Jolo, but Tan said that religious emissaries were able to get a delay in the executions.

Tan has declared a state of emergency in the province and directed troops who had partially withdrawn to move back and track down the kidnappers.

The ICRC workers were kidnapped on Jan. 15 after inspecting water facilities in the Jolo jail.

Kidnappers disperse

A former Jolo official and ex-commander of the Moro National Liberation Front said the kidnappers abandoned their Indanan camp on Tuesday night and had divided into four groups in anticipation of an impending military assault. He said they also had received reinforcements from nearby towns.

The hostages were reported to be under the custody of a commander known as Yasser Igasan, also known as Abu Ali.

Also in the group was a commander known as Umbra Judail, alias Doctor Abu, a key figure in the kidnapping of Western tourists in 2000 and 2001.

Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said Judail could be the man talking to Gordon and not Albader Parad, the leader of the kidnappers holding the ICRC workers.

Puno said Parad, who had acted as the group’s spokesperson in the hostage crisis, “is seriously wounded and is not the one talking to everybody.”

The kidnappers have acknowledged that Parad was wounded in a clash with security forces in Jolo last month in which three soldiers and two Abu Sayyaf men were killed.

The military said no operation had yet been launched to rescue the hostages.

“We have not moved in yet,” said Arevalo. “We are still exploring the possibility of a safe release of the hostages,” he said, adding the provincial governor had sent emissaries to talk to the rebels.

Signal to strike awaited

A military official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said troops redeployed to known lairs of the Abu Sayyaf were ready to strike and were just waiting for Tan’s signal.

“Our soldiers have already returned to their positions and they are just waiting for the order for a military rescue,” he said.

In a briefing attended by Puno, Tan and other local officials Wednesday morning, agreement was reached that the governor would take charge of carrying out the province-wide state of emergency, said Arevalo.

Town mayors would oversee its implementation in their areas, he said, adding that only uniformed security personnel would man checkpoints and chokepoints.

The Philippine National Police also announced the recall of all permits issued to civilians allowing them to carry and transport firearms in the province.

The temporary gun ban would help prevent misencounters and untoward incidents that would harm civilians amid the tension brought about by the hostage crisis, Chief Supt. Ireno Bacolod, director of the PNP civil security group, told the Inquirer.

“This is a normal procedure when a place is under a state of emergency … this is to make it easier for the military and the police to spot lawless elements,” said Bacolod.

There was no available data on how many residents were issued gun permits in Sulu province but there are roughly 11,200 licensed gun owners in the entire Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

PNP Director General Jesus Verzosa also sought to assure provincial officials that police manpower and other resources would be made available to them.

Concern from Italy’s president

ICRC-Manila spokesperson Anastasia Isyuk told reporters that ICRC officials were worried by the uncertainty of the fate of the hostages, despite Tan’s report that the three were alive.

“As of now, we still cannot confirm what is the real situation on the ground and we are still concerned with the safety of our delegates. We hope the worst hasn’t happened yet and will not happen,” she said.

In Rome on Tuesday, Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano pleaded with the kidnappers to show mercy instead of “hate and intolerance.”

Napolitano called for the “unconditional release” of the hostages to “bring an end to a situation that has provoked the anxiety of the hostages’ families as well as that of Italian and international public opinion.”

He urged in the statement that “humanitarian considerations take precedence over hate and intolerance.”

Bishops call for prayers

In a statement to be read in churches, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines exhorted all Filipinos to pray for the safe release of the hostages.

“Let it be a whole nation praying that all may experience true freedom and security. May healing and forgiveness take place, hostilities cease and peace prevail,” said the statement issued Wednesday by CBCP president Angel Lagdameo.

On Monday, Pope Benedict XVI aired his concern for the hostages and their families and appealed that “humanitarian feeling and reason might have the upper hand over violence and intimidation.”

Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, in a letter on Tuesday, told President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo: “The task is very difficult, but rather than have bloody bodies in the end which will surely escalate in the ‘get-even’ aftermath, let there be proper mutual shifts of dialogue and demands.”

Philippine Daily Inquirer staff: Jocelyn R. Uy,
Arlyn dela Cruz, Michael Lim Ubac and Jerome
Aning in Manila and Julie Alipala, Inquirer Mindanao,
in Zamboanga City, with a report from Agence France-Presse

Published in: on April 2, 2009 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Abus, hostages desert hideout  
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