Fate of hostages is up to Arroyo

MANILA, Philippines — The fate of two foreign aid workers still held captive by the Abu Sayyaf in Jolo, Sulu, is now in the hands of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who is marking her 62nd birthday on Sunday, Sen. Richard Gordon warned Saturday.

Gordon said that in effect, the life or death of Italian Eugenio Vagni and Swiss Andreas Notter of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) depended on Ms Arroyo who, he pointed out, had the power to order government troops to pull back from the area surrounding the bandits’ camp.

According to Gordon, the bandit leader Albader Parad has not withdrawn his ultimatum to behead a hostage if the military refused to pull back from certain areas.

“Parad doesn’t have to [inform us ahead of time]. He never withdrew the ultimatum. It’s up to you guys. Don’t blame me,” said Gordon, the national chair of the Philippine National Red Cross.

“I need to talk to the President and her Cabinet. If they don’t want to talk to me, it’s up to them,” the senator said by phone, quickly adding:

“[Today] is critical. It is the President’s birthday. We don’t want to give the Abu Sayyaf an opportunity to [present] a macabre gift, as it did during President Joseph Estrada’s birthday and on Independence Day.”

Gordon was referring to the Abu Sayyaf’s beheading of two school teachers as a “birthday gift” to Estrada in April 2000, and of an American tourist as an “Independence Day gift” to Ms Arroyo in June 2001.

“Why allow the local task force to decide on an issue with ramifications on national security? The whole world is watching. The Pope himself is watching us. If the hostages are killed, that’s the repercussion,” he said.

Gordon also said Filipino ICRC aid worker Mary Jean Lacaba, who was released by the Abu Sayyaf on Thursday night, was in a “safehouse” in Quezon City with her family.

He said Lacaba’s 77 days in captivity had emotionally affected her, and that she must be worried sick about the fate of her two colleagues.

Ultimatum

On the phone with the Philippine Daily Inquirer in Zamboanga City, Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan aired his own ultimatum to the kidnappers.

“They better release the hostages immediately or else… They know what will happen to them next,” he said without elaborating.

Tan said he wanted the Abu Sayyaf to know that he was “now the one making demands.”

“And my demand to the kidnappers is unconditional. As far as I am concerned, tapos na yung usapan (the negotiation has ended),” he said.

Gordon said Parad wanted government troops to withdraw from only five municipalities, and not a third of the island of Jolo.

He recalled that in a recent phone conversation, Parad told him, “I kept my word,” thus reminding him of their gentleman’s agreement that a hostage would be freed so long as the troops pulled back.

Gordon said he had told Parad to start talking with Vice President Noli de Castro, “[who is] more powerful than me,” but that Parad said he preferred talking with the senator.

Text message

Gordon said Parad sent a text message on Saturday asking about the latest developments regarding his demand for a troop pullback: “Meron na bang balita?”

He said he could not answer but wondered how Parad could send a text message from inside the military cordon, which had no cell phone signal.

“The military is bragging about the cordon. But he is able to go from the area where there is no signal to an area with a signal,” Gordon said.

He quoted Parad as saying that if the two of them stopped communicating, “something will be delivered to you.”

Gordon called on the government to reestablish a cell phone signal in the hinterlands of Jolo.

“We need to communicate with these people. [The government] should open the cell phone signal at a particular time so that at least we can communicate with them. Talking is better than killing,” he said.

Machismo

On radio dzMM early Saturday night, Gordon said the military brass was belittling his efforts to free the hostages.

He said Ms Arroyo had to intervene to resolve the crisis.

“The soldiers do not make policies. They follow the chain of command. But there is no raging war now. Since there are no clashes yet, there must be rules of engagement. The policy decision is now on the table of the President. It’s there … in front of her,” he said.

Gordon said that if Ms Arroyo meant what she had said—that the troops should not pull back “an inch”—“that’s her decision.”

“I cannot order anybody. I can only appeal for the lives of the two men,” he said.

He also said that although no general “in his right mind” would agree to a troop pullback because of the “machismo culture,” it should be an option because the lives of Notter and Vagni were at stake.

Gordon said the ambassadors of Switzerland and Italy had complained to him about the lack of a point person to talk with regarding the progress of efforts for the hostages’ release.

He said he was being vilified in the media, with one official calling him names.

“They say I’m stupid—that I should shut my mouth. No, no. Such [trash talk] should not be resorted to,” he said.

Money talk

Officials claim that Lacaba was released without ransom. But according to reports making the rounds in Zamboanga City and Sulu, money changed hands.

Governor Tan refused to comment, but cited the Sipadan hostage crisis in 2001 when hostages were freed after the payment of ransom.

However, he said he would not allow the Abu Sayyaf to cash in on Notter and Vagni.

“I have direct communication with the kidnappers and my position is as it is—free the hostages without any ransom because I will never, never pay ransom,” he said.

Tan said he would rather spend for the needs of residents who had fled their homes in Talatak, Indanan, in anticipation of a major military action against the Abu Sayyaf, and those displaced by recent storm surges.

Indanan social welfare officer Christopher Lee said about 300 families were also displaced from Barangay Kagay.

In Maimbung town, Mayor Najib Maldisa said two barangays (villages) were also deserted by residents fearful of a major military offensive.

No sacred cows

Tan said more people were being questioned in connection with kidnapping for ransom in Sulu.

He said more arrests should be expected as the crackdown on Abu Sayyaf supporters continued.

Tan said some 10 persons—including three police officers from Indanan and Patikul, two barangay officials of Indanan and Parang, and two businessmen—had been taken to Zamboanga City.

“We will see if the evidence against them is strong. We go by due process,” he said.

Tan said he did not care who would be affected by the renewed campaign against the bandits.

“I don’t have sacred cows. If they committed a sin, I don’t care even if they are politicians. If there is a need to invite them, congressman or barangay officials, we will invite them,” he said.

Tan said he was not exempted from that “need.”

“The irony is, nobody has invited me for questioning. If I were invited, I can offer a lot of information. Maybe that’s why nobody has invited me yet,” he said.

In Malacañang, Press Secretary Cerge Remonde backed the investigation of suspected bandit coddlers.

“If anybody, a private citizen, policeman or government official, violated the law by coddling these terrorists, it’s only proper that they are investigated. If they are found guilty, they should face the full consequences of the law,” he said.

ICRC appeal

In Manila, ICRC media officer Anastasia Isyuk aired a renewed appeal for the safety of Notter and Vagni:

“We ask that they remain unharmed. We reiterate our appeal to the abductors to let Eugenio and Andreas go without delay and unconditionally.”

Alain Aeschlimann, chief of the ICRC Asia-Pacific delegation, said Lacaba was “in good health” and in the company of family and friends.

‘Hostages fate up to Abu’

“She’s lost some weight and is obviously tired, but she’s doing OK. What she needs now is rest and quality time with her family. We will not be commenting further, as that would be an invasion of her privacy,” he said.

Remonde said the government was “doing everything” for the safe rescue of Vagni and Notter.

“We can’t reveal the operational details for security reasons,” he said, but conceded that the fate of the hostages “lay in the hands of the Abu Sayyaf.”

Michael Lim Ubac and Julie Alipala
With reports from Kristine Alave and
TJ Burgonio, Philippine Daily Inquirer

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Published in: on April 5, 2009 at 1:15 am  Comments Off on Fate of hostages is up to Arroyo  
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