Military evacuates towns, shuts down Sulu cell sites

OFFICIALS evacuated some 100 families—the first of an expected 21,000 civilians—from four towns in Sulu yesterday to prepare to rescue three Red Cross workers being held by Abu Sayyaf terrorists on the island’s jungles.

They made the move even as government negotiators struggled to re-establish contact with the abductors of Andreas Notter of Switzerland, Eugenio Vagni of Italy, and Mary Jean Lacaba of the Philippines, who were kidnapped on Jan. 15 after visiting a water project in Jolo.

The military had earlier asked telephone firms to shut down their cell sites on the island so the terrorists could not communicate with one another, and apparently in preparation for an assault.

The terrorists had threatened to behead one of the three hostages unless government troops effectively ceded control of the island by March 31, but apparently had not carried out their threat.

Soldiers made a partial retreat from five towns, but refused to go further.

On Tuesday, Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan declared a state of emergency hours after the beheading deadline set by the terrorists lapsed.

“[We see] around 4,200 families that will be affected—roughly 21,000 people in five towns—and they will be moved to evacuation centers,” deputy presidential spokesman Anthony Golez said.

He said the evacuation of Indanan, Parang, Maimbung, Paticul and Talipao would take place in a “worst-case scenario,” when civilians were in danger of being caught in the crossfire.

Provincial police chief Julasirim Kasim said government forces were “sealing off” areas where the gunmen and hostages had been sighted.

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

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.

He said the kidnappers were moving within a 15-square-kilometer jungle area, and that it was drenched in rain, making travel and living conditions difficult.

“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,” Puno said.

A senior Red Cross official said Thursday there was no news on the fate of the agency’s three workers.

“We continue to hope that the worst did not happen and will not happen,” said Alain Aeschlimann, regional operations chief of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“We have taken note of reports that the kidnappers’ threat was not carried out.”

Pope Benedict XVI issued a last-minute appeal for the lives of the hostages, as did the governments of Italy and Switzerland.

Meanwhile, Singapore said Thursday it was in touch with Manila on reports a suspected Singaporean extremist was acting on behalf of the kidnappers.

“We have been in touch and working with the Philippine authorities on this issue. We are unable to disclose any other details,” the Ministry of Home Affairs said in a brief statement to Agence France-Presse.

Puno said Wednesday the Singaporean militant had served as an interpreter for the Abu Sayyaf as it negotiated with the Red Cross and the government.

Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper said the militant may have been Muawiyah, an Indian-Singaporean extremist who uses the alias Manobo and who is suspected to have links with Jemaah Islamiyah.

That group has been blamed for deadly bombings in Indonesia, and Western intelligence agencies say some Jemaah fugitives may have found refuge among Islamic terrorists or Muslim separatist rebels in Mindanao.

Florante S. Solmerin and Joyce Pangco Pañares,
with AP and AFP, Manila Standard Today

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Published in: on April 4, 2009 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Military evacuates towns, shuts down Sulu cell sites  
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