Pinay Red Cross worker recovered

Mary Jean Lacaba

Mary Jean Lacaba

MANILA, Philippines – Filipina Red Cross worker Mary Jean Lacaba was recovered last night from her Abu Sayyaf kidnappers in Indanan, Sulu and taken to the medical center of the 3rd Marine Brigade in Jolo.

Details were hazy, but the release was confirmed by Maj. Gen. Nelson Allaga, head of the military’s Western Mindanao Command.

Authorities are readying the evacuation of over 21,000 residents in five towns in Sulu for a possible worst-case scenario or an armed confrontation between security forces and the Abu Sayyaf bandits.

Deputy Presidential Spokesman Anthony Golez said the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) headed by Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) headed by Secretary Esperanza Cabral have prepared contingency plans in case rescue operations for the hostages spill over into civilian communities.

Golez said the NDCC is “seeing around 4,200 families that will be affected or 21,000 people in five towns in Sulu, and the DSWD has already identified 19 evacuation centers.”

He said the five towns are Indanan, Parang, Maimbung, Patikul, and Talipao covering hundreds of square kilometers.

“The worst-case scenario is premised on clashes (between government troops and Abu Sayyaf militants). Whether it’s rescue or military operations for as long as civilians are caught in a crossfire,” said Golez, who is also deputy administrator for the Office of Civil Defense. The NDCC said 100 families have been displaced in several villages in Indanan and Parang as a result of the ongoing search operation.

Golez said “coordination is paramount” in ensuring the safety of civilians in the event of armed confrontation between the Abu Sayyaf and the military.

He said the DSWD has already prepared supplies for evacuees.

Golez, however, declined to say what would serve as trigger for a mass evacuation.

He stressed the government remains hopeful for a “best case scenario” in which the hostages would be finally released.

In Rome, ANSA news quoted Foreign Minister Franco Frattini as saying that the hostages “are alive according to information in our possession,” following “contacts with our compatriot.”

But Alain Aeschlimann, regional operations chief for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said he had no new word on their fate.

“We continue to hope that the worst did not happen and will not happen,” Aeschlimann said in an interview posted on the ICRC website. “We have taken note of reports that the kidnappers’ threat was not carried out.”

Reestablishing contact

As the whereabouts of the hostages remained unknown, authorities struggled to reestablish contact with the bandits who have threatened to behead their captives.

Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan, head of the provincial crisis management committee dealing with the kidnapping problem, said the terrorists and their captives were on the run as troops were redeployed around a hilly area in Sulu close to their camp.

Tan declared a state of emergency in Sulu on Tuesday, hours after the beheading deadline set by the militants lapsed. Tan later said he had information but not proof the hostages were alive as troops rumbled off in tanks and trucks to try to prevent the militants from escaping.

Anak Mindanao Rep. Mujiv Hataman, meanwhile, clarified that he is not in favor of the state of emergency proclamation but “respects” it.

Vice Gov. Lady Ann Sahidullah said there might be no mobile phone signal at the kidnappers’ position in the jungles.

Provincial police chief Julasirim Kasim said yesterday government forces were “sealing off” areas where the gunmen and the Italian, Swiss and Filipino hostages were sighted.

He said police were continuing to set up road checkpoints around Jolo but refused to give other details.

Italian Eugenio Vagni, Swiss Andreas Notter and Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba were seized Jan. 15 after visiting a Red Cross water sanitation project at the provincial jail.

Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said Jolo Rep. Yusop Jikiri, a former Muslim rebel commander with extensive connections among the militants, talked with Abu Sayyaf commander Abu Pula on Tuesday but failed to win the hostages’ release.

In a later interview with ABS-CBN television, Puno said the kidnappers were moving within a 15-square-kilometer jungle area in Sulu.

He said the area was drenched in rain, making travel and living conditions difficult. The gunmen could not readily abandon the hilly area because it has been their only source of drinking water in the jungle, Puno said.

“This has been their situation for a while now, and although there has been no offensive action taken against them, they have absolutely no possibility of getting away from the area,” he said.

Puno said the focus of government efforts was to make sure that kidnappers “head back in the direction of negotiation with anyone.”

He also expressed readiness to settle his differences with Sen. Richard Gordon, who is also chairman of the Philippine National Red Cross.

Puno and Gordon earlier engaged in a verbal tussle over how to deal with the crisis.

“I have nothing but praise and admiration for him, although there had been misunderstandings between him and myself over the past two months,” Puno said of Gordon.

Swiss gov’t appeal

The Swiss government, meanwhile, appealed to the bandits to release the hostages.

“We implore the kidnappers to show compassion and to release Mary Jean, Andreas and Eugenio without further delay and in good health,” a statement said.

“The three hostages have dedicated their lives to the cause of peace and to helping the most disadvantaged people in the world,” it read.

The Abu Sayyaf has gained notoriety for beheading several of its hostages in the past, including an American in 2001 as well as seven Filipinos in 2007.

Verifying reports

A source in the military said they are sending people to check if Notter had really been shot and killed while trying to escape or if Abu Sayyaf leader Albader Parad had been seriously wounded in a firefight with marines.

“We’ve sent people to check the spot where Notter was supposedly buried,” he said.

He said the military is also checking reports that renegade members of the Moro National Liberation Front led by Haber Malik have reinforced the group of Parad and Dr. Abu.

Jaime Laude and Roel Pareño, Philippine Star
With Delon Porcallla and Associated Press

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Published in: on April 3, 2009 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Pinay Red Cross worker recovered  
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