RP may tap VFA to rescue Sulu hostages

MANILA, Philippines—Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. Sunday said the Philippines could bank on its Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and other pacts with the United States for help in its efforts to rescue people abducted by the Abu Sayyaf, including two foreign aid workers held in Jolo, Sulu.

“We can make use of them,” Pimentel said of the agreements between Manila and Washington in an interview over dzBB radio. He made the suggestion in replying to a question concerning lawmakers’ calls for a review of the VFA.

But he stressed that he did not want the agreements to be used as a reason for US troops to fight the Abu Sayyaf.

“The VFA can be used to ask help from the US so we can secure the release of two hostages of the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu and the Filipino teachers kidnapped by the group in Zamboanga,” Pimentel said in Filipino.

He was referring to Swiss Andreas Notter and Italian Eugenio Vagni of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) who remain in the hands of the bandit group in Sulu, as well as six Filipino teachers who were taken in Zamboanga, some of whom are now being held in Basilan.

Pimentel said the agreements could be used to allow the Philippines to borrow “sophisticated equipment” from the Americans that would help local troops find the kidnappers.

“We need to monitor their movements, and the Americans are the only ones with this kind of equipment,” the senator said.

Still hopeful

On the phone Sunday with the Philippine Daily Inquirer in Zamboanga City, Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan said he had stopped talking with the Abu Sayyaf for the release of Notter and Vagni although his emissaries continued to negotiate with the bandit group.

But he said he was not losing hope that the two men would soon be freed like Filipino engineer Mary Jean Lacaba.

Notter, Vagni and Lacaba were abducted on Jan. 15, after they inspected a water sanitation project at the Sulu provincial jail. Lacaba was released 77 days later.

“I am still hopeful; there is still hope that they would be freed any day now,” Tan said.

He admitted, however, that the Abu Sayyaf was still demanding a troop pullout even as the government was standing pat on its decision not to dismantle the military cordon set up in the town of Indanan.

“The demand for the pullout of troops, that’s what they are constantly seeking, and I am not giving in to their demand,” he said, adding:

“The cordon stays, and it’s more tight now.”

Tan said the ball was in the kidnappers’ court: “It depends on them now if they want to release the victims.”

Waiting game

Tan said the situation remained tense in Indanan with Notter and Vagni still in the bandits’ hands.

“It’s like a waiting game—waiting and occasionally hanging tough,” he said.

Tan said the Abu Sayyaf actually had no clear demands, and that this was why he had decided not to personally deal with them anymore.

“I don’t talk to people who do not really know what they want,” the governor said.

“My advice to these kidnappers is that they better think well, sit down and discuss among themselves what are their demands. If they don’t have any valid reason [for the abduction] except for this endless call for a troop pullout, they better just release the hostages. They can’t expect anything from us,” he said.

Sulu Vice Gov. Nur-Ana Sahidulla said the Abu Sayyaf was willing to negotiate for the release of Notter and Vagni.

But she said the bandit group had emphasized that negotiations could take place only after troops had been pulled out of Indanan.

“That’s their only demand—that the troops withdraw,” Sahidulla said.

Christine Avendaño and Julie Alipala
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Published in: on April 13, 2009 at 1:29 am  Comments Off on RP may tap VFA to rescue Sulu hostages  
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