Puno bares new talks with Vagni kidnappers

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines—Negotiators opened new “areas of discussion” with the Abu Sayyaf for the release of Italian engineer Eugenio Vagni, a Red Cross volunteer being held captive by the bandit group, a top official said on Tuesday.

Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said Vagni is “very safe and healthy,” quoting reports from emissaries that he did not identify.

“We have opened three new areas of discussion with the kidnappers and we received reports from local officials there that Mr. Vagni is safe and he is healthy,” Puno said.

“There’s a pursuit operation going on there which have resulted in a lot of casualties on both sides, so we are hoping that with a slight pause in the operations, the ASG will find its way to discussing with us the immediate release of Vagni,” Puno added.

Proof of life

PNP Chief Director General Jesus Versoza, in a separate interview, supported Puno’s statement, dismissing reports that the Italian hostage had been killed.

“Those were just reports, and we have proof of life,” Versoza said. He said police received the proof of life “about two or three weeks ago.”

Puno admitted no phone calls had been made with Vagni.

“As you know the ASG there are on the run, so there is very little communication going on by telephone in that area, but there are emissaries that have been going back and forth that have been delivering messages,” Puno said.

Puno said Vagni and his kidnappers “are still in the same area, but we cannot mention that specific place because it will prejudice security operations.”

General location

Versoza said the kidnappers holding Vagni are “in general areas of Indanan and Patikul town.”

“We believe that he is in Sulu and he is inside Sulu based on our monitoring,” he said.

But Brig. General Muhammad Nur Askalani, chief of the government’s Ad-Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG), expressed concern over the lack of regular reports on Vagni’s whereabouts.

The AHJAG is a monitoring mechanism set up by the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

“Before, we got regular monitoring update but lately we didn’t hear anything from him. The last time we heard was early part of June,” Askalani said.

The Abu Sayyaf is one of two groups that US military officers said were the main reasons for US military presence in Mindanao.

US Air Force Maj. John Hutcheson said US soldiers were sent to selected areas in Mindanao to help the AFP flush out foreign members of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a Southeast Asian terror network with ties to Al-Qaida, and the Abu Sayyaf.

“The ASG and the JI are the number one reason we are here assisting the (Armed Forces of the Philippines) in the Southern Philippines,” said Hutcheson, public affairs chief of the Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines (JSOTFP), a group overseeing the operations of US and Philippine soldiers taking part in anti-terrorism exercises in Mindanao.

Julie S. Alipala, Inquirer Mindanao

Published in: on June 24, 2009 at 6:32 am  Leave a Comment  

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