Ulama asked to help free 2 Red Cross workers

MANILA, Philippines—A senior Muslim cleric has been called in to help negotiate the release of two Red Cross workers held captive for three months on Jolo Island, Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan said Wednesday.

The move came amid news that the health of one of the hostages has deteriorated in the Indanan forest where their captors have been cornered.

Tan, head of the negotiating team seeking to free the two International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) workers, said the region’s chief “ulama,” or Muslim preacher, would try to convince the Abu Sayyaf extremists to release the hostages.

“This is our last-ditch effort to secure the safe release of the two hostages as peacefully as possible,” Tan told a local radio station. He did not identify the cleric.

Swiss Andreas Notter, Italian Eugenio Vagni and Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba were abducted while on a humanitarian mission on Jolo Jan. 15.

Italian needs surgery

Lacaba was freed April 2, but the group is still holding Notter and Vagni and has threatened to behead one of them unless the government pulled out from around its hideout.

Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said the 62-year-old Vagni needed to be operated on for a hernia, and that his health had steadily deteriorated.

He called on the kidnappers to free the hostages or at least allow doctors in to assess Vagni’s health.

“He needs an operation and that can only be determined by a doctor,” Puno, who flew into Jolo Wednesday, told reporters.

He said Notter had spoken to negotiators by phone recently and told them Vagni was having a very difficult time moving around.

Tan said the Abu Sayyaf kidnappers were still demanding a troop withdrawal but he stressed the government would not comply with this unless the hostages were first released.

No arrest order

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita also announced Wednesday that there was no order for the arrest of Sulu Vice Gov. Nur-Ana Sahidulla, who negotiated the release of Lacaba.

Sahidulla denied in a phone interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer Wednesday she had gone into hiding. She said that she had been hospitalized in Manila for stress-related stomach problems.

But she also said she feared for her safety because the kidnappers demand for a troop pullout had not happened.

Sahidulla said she would resume her role as negotiator if given the authority to do so by Malacañang.

Training with US troops

Also Wednesday, hostage crisis spokesperson Lt. Col. Edgard Arevalo said about 100 Marines had started training with their US counterparts to “fight and fix” the guerrilla-type skirmishes of the Abu Sayyaf group on Jolo.

After their two-month training, the soldiers will be integrated as “fresh soldiers” to combat the Abu Sayyaf.

The training, which began on Monday, was being held near the coastal village of Bonbon in Patikul, Jolo, he said.

“It’s just a small unit that is being trained, an aggregate of about 90 to 100 officers and enlisted personnel,” he told reporters over the phone Wednesday.

But he made it clear that the training was not brought about by the ongoing attempts to rescue the ICRC workers.

Philippine Daily Inquirer
With reports from Agence France-Presse,
Jocelyn R. Uy, Tarra Quismundo and
Julie Alipala, Inquirer Mindanao

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Published in: on April 16, 2009 at 5:59 am  Comments Off on Ulama asked to help free 2 Red Cross workers  
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