Gunmen abduct 3 ICRC representatives
On Thursday, the Armed Forces of the Philippines reported that three representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) were abducted in Patikul, Sulu.
Army officers have identified the victims as Swiss Andreas Notter, age 38, Italian Eugenio Vagni, age 62, from Montevarchi and Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba, age 37, a Davao-based ICRC engineer.
The Philippine National Red Cross said Saturday that the three hostages were still alive. “We have received reliable information that our abducted colleagues are alive,” said Anna Nelson, a spokeswoman for the Manila ICRC office. The MILF also confirmed that the 3 hostages are still alive.
MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal on Saturday said it was coordinating in the rescue of the ICRC hostages. “The latest information we received is that the kidnappers are transferring their captives by land and sea from one island to another,” said Iqbal, adding its forces will cooperate in the hot-pursuit of the group of Albader Parad.
The three workers first made communication with the ICRC on Friday and said they were all unharmed. They were able to call and spoke with their superiors in Manila. “We are, of course, relieved to have heard their voices and to know that they are alive,” said Jean-Daniel Tauxe, head of the ICRC delegation in Manila. “We are not in a position to comment further, since our main priority is ensuring that nothing jeopardizes their safety, but it goes without saying that their families, as well as their colleagues, are hoping for their safe and swift return,” he added.
Two calls were made, one on Friday night and the other early Saturday morning, said ICRC spokesperson Anna Nelson and Senator Gordon. Rebel leader ‘Parad is planning to demand 5 million dollars while Dr. Abu is reportedly planning a still unknown political demand’ for the safe release of the ICRC team, Monsters and Critics said Sunday based on military reports.
The Department of National Defense on Friday has accused the terrorist Abu Sayyaf Group faction as responsible for the forcible abduction. The militants have fled with the ICRC victims to Talipao town, Defense Secretary Gilberto C. Teodoro, Jr. said.
According to Chief Superintendent Bensali Jabarani, Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao police chief, there were reports of sightings of the captives late Friday in a wooded area of Indanan in the interior of Jolo. “We got information from some residents fleeing the area,” said Jabarani, adding a group of about 30 gunmen were guarding the three hostages. Of the three, the two foreign hostages were spotted by villagers in Maimbung, Sulu near Indanan late Friday.
The military authorities confirmed Sunday the abductors were under notorious rebel commander Albader Parad and Akmad Jumdail alias Dr. Abu Pula of the Islamist Abu Sayyaf group. Sulu police chief Senior Supt. Julasirim Kasim said Parad and another Abu Sayyaf leader, Sulaiman Patah both participated in the kidnapping and were part of the armed group that seized the ICRC representatives Thursday. Parad’s group was also blamed for the kidnapping last June of ABS-CBN news anchor Cecilia Victoria Oreña-Drilon and two other staff of the network.
The ICRC has temporarily stopped operations in southern Philippines because of the Patikul abduction. “We are temporarily halting operations in the area so we can revisit and assess our security arrangements. Our main concern is the safety of our colleagues,” said Roland Bigler, ICRC’s spokesman in the Philippines.
According to Sen. Richard Gordon, Philippine National Red Cross chairman, the ICRC workers from Italy, Switzerland and the Philippines were driving to Jolo Airport after visiting a provincial jail when at least eight motorcycle-riding armed men intercepted them. They were seized as they emerged from the Area Coordinating Center (ACC), where they interviewed officials of the Sulu Provincial Jail. Six young boys are among a dozen gunmen who kidnapped the workers, an ICRC staff member said Friday.
“I am appealing to the Abu Sayyaf to free those people, because they are neutral in any conflict,” Mr Gordon said. “Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention prohibits the abduction or kidnapping of persons taking no active part in hostilities, such as the ICRC which is an impartial humanitarian body that offers services to both parties in conflicts,” Gordon explained.
The kidnappers, however, released Dr. Richie Sorilla, ICRC medical field officer; Ramon Catacutan, senior field officer; and Mohamad Shihata Jikiri, field officer. Their ICRC vehicle was later recovered in the village of Banganan, Patikul town by members of Task Force Comet, headed by Maj. Gen. Juancho Sabban. The kidnappers were on their way to Barangay Bud Pula in Patikul town, the military said.
Jolo Gov. Sakur Tan said the three workers arrived in Jolo on Wednesday for “humanitarian activities,” and to conduct a probe into the jailbreak wherein 12 local prisoners escaped and one was killed. “They had been carrying out a water and sanitation project to improve the condition of detainees,” ICRC spokesman Reynaldo Guioguio explained.
Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has directed the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Philippine National Police (PNP) to rescue the three victims and conduct an “all-out pursuit” of the militants. “The security forces, both AFP and PNP are in hot-pursuit operations to track down the criminal elements and ensure the safe return of the captives. The elite Task Force Comet under Maj. Gen. Juancho Sabban has been tasked to undertake appropriate action on the ground,” said Press Secretary Jesus Dureza. According to a U.S. military official, American soldiers were also providing noncombat “assistance and advice” to the elite Philippine military group on rescue operations.
The Philippine troops have fanned out on a southern island to search for the gunmen. They were scouring Friday the jungles of Indanan and Patikul jungles in Sulu. The military is also now looking for a former Sulu Provincial Jail warden, who may have involvement in the kidnapping and the recent jailbreak.
“We have established the identity of one of the kidnappers. He is Raden Abu, nephew of Parad, a dismissed guard of the Patikul jail. He was present, looking around when the kidnapping happened,” said Lt. Gen. Nelson Allaga, Western MIndanao Command chief and Sulu police chief Senior Supt. Julasirim Kasim Friday.
Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Franco Frattini has activated Thursday the Ministry’s crisis unit and the Italian Embassy in the Philippines to monitor developments in the Sulu abduction of Italian citizen Eugenio Vagni. “The Crisis Unit is already in contact with Mr Vagni’s family and is following the situation in close coordination with the Embassy in Manila, the Philippine authorities and the Italian Red Cross,” said the Ministry. The ICRC chapter in Geneva, Switzerland has also mobilized its “cellule de crise” to follow up on the abduction incident, the Italian Embassy announced.
The Abu Sayyaf Group is one of several militant Islamist separatist groups based in and around the southern islands of Philippines, in Bangsamoro (Jolo, Basilan, and Mindanao) where for almost 30 years various Muslim groups have been engaged in an insurgency for a state, independent of the predominantly Catholic Philippines. The group, which emerged in the early 1990s, is notorious for its kidnappings. The Group’s 340 members remain active in Sulu and Basilan provinces.
Meanwhile, US Ambassador to the Republic of the Philippines Kristie Anne Kenney has on Thursday night condemned the kidnapping of the three ICRC representatives. “I’m horrified. These are people who, throughout the country, do a wonderful work. And I think it’s appalling that they would be falling into any kind of harm’s way,” she said.
The Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy (PCID) officer Amina Rasul on Friday also condemned the Sulu abduction. She called on the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and civil society groups for assistance in the rescue of the victims.
“The full force of ARMM and the Sulu provincial government should be brought to bear on this problem of lawlessness,” Rasul said. Human Rights chairperson Leila De Lima asked the militant group to release and permit the 3 workers to continue their humanitarian work in Sulu and Jolo island.