ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines (Mindanao Exzaminer / Mar. 28, 2009) – The Philippines on Saturday finally surrendered to Abu Sayyaf demands to pull out troops near its jungle lair or terrorists would behead one of three Red Cross hostages in Sulu province.
Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno was quoted by local journalists as saying that troops will pull out beginning Saturday from the jungle stronghold of Abu Sayyaf terrorists where the aid workers are being held captive.
The trio – Swiss national Andreas Notter, Italian Eugenio Vagni and Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba – were kidnapped January 15 after inspecting a water and sanitation project at a prison in the town of Patikul.
An Abu Sayyaf leader, Albader Parad, have threatened to behead one hostage if security forces are not pulled out from the town until end of this month.
Troops, policemen and armed village guards have put up a cordon in Indanan town to prevent the terrorists from escaping with their hostages.
“We are giving them a breathing space where they feel safe to negotiate,” Puno said, referring to the Abu Sayyaf. “I think we are more than bending over backwards in order that the kidnappers will not feel threatened.”
Puno made a brief stopover in Zamboanga City on his way to Sulu province with Gov. Sakur Tan for a meeting with senior police and military officials.
Senior Supt. Julasirim Kasim, Sulu police chief, said they are waiting for orders whether to pull out or not. “We just take orders from our superiors and if they wanted us to pull back, then there is no problem with us and we can maintain intelligence operations to monitor the movements of the kidnappers,” he said.
Kasim said they have intelligence reports that the Abu Sayyaf may kill Vagni if security forces are not pulled out in Indanan town. He said the terrorists issued an ultimatum until end of March for security forces to withdraw from the town.
The Abu Sayyaf last week also threatened to behead hostages after two days of clashes that left three soldiers dead and 23 others wounded. Parad was also wounded in the fighting and warned that they will kill the hostage if clashes erupt again or if troops get near them.
Lt. Gen. Nelson Allaga, commander of military forces in Western Mindanao, ignored phone calls from journalists, while Col. Eugenio Clemen, marine commander in Sulu, declined to give any statement about the pull out of soldiers from Indanan and so was Col. Ernesto Torres, the spokesman of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to where the hostages belong has appealed again to the Abu Sayyaf to free the Notter, Vagni and Lacaba.
Appearing on a 34-second video on the ICRC website, Jakob Kellenberger, the ICRC's president, appealed to the kidnappers to free the trio.
“I am very concerned by the threats of the kidnappers,” Kellenberger said in a rare appearance. “I am asking for their safe, unconditional and immediate release.”
The appeal was in response to threats made by the Abu Sayyaf that they will kill one of the ICRC captives if their demand for a pull back of troops goes unmet.
”The sole purpose of Mary Jean, Eugenio and Andreas' work is to give help to those in need. It is impossible to understand what the kidnappers could possibly achieve by hurting them. Harming a humanitarian aid worker cannot be justified under any ideology or religious law,” Kellenberger said in the video, behind him a world map showing red dots where the ICRC is operating.
The ICRC said Kellenberger spoke with Philippine Executive Secretary, Eduardo Ermita, and asked him to ensure that the authorities do everything in their power to save the lives of the hostages, while avoiding any action that could put their lives at risk.
”The ICRC's priority is that Mary Jean, Eugenio and Andreas remain safe and that they be able to return to their families, who miss them desperately. Their children, parents, siblings, spouses, friends and colleagues will not give up hope of seeing them again soon,” Kellenberger said.
The television network ABS-CBN also showed a video footage of the hostages sitting together and surrounded by their captors, many of them clad in military uniforms and wearing ski masks.
Two of the guards were holding a black banner with Arabic inscriptions similar to what the terrorist group al-Qaeda show in their propaganda videos.
Filipino military intelligence reports said among those holding the aid workers are members of the Indonesian terror group Jemaah Islamiya.
Jemaah Islamiya militants led by Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir also known as Marwan, is believed to be among the Abu Sayyaf holding the hostages. Two more Jemaah Islamiya terrorists Dulmatin and Umar Patek are also said to be hiding in Sulu.
Zulkifli, who also heads the Kumpulun Mujahidin Malaysia (KMM), was believed to be involved in multiple deadly bomb attacks in the Philippines and has been added to most-wanted list of the U.S. Rewards for Justice Program.
The U.S. offered as much as $5-million bounty for the capture of Zulkifli and other known Abu Sayyaf leaders, while Dulmatin carries a $10-million reward on his head and $1-million for Patek. Manila also put aside P100-million bounties for the capture of Abu Sayyaf leaders dead or alive. (Mindanao Examiner)