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We were held hostage – Dolorfino

Marine Maj. Gen. Benjamin Dolorfino admitted before members of Congress during a confirmation hearing yesterday that he and other members of the government peace panel were held hostage by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) last weekend.

Dolorfino, who was at the Senate for a confirmation hearing on his promotion to major general, made the admission before the Commission on Appointments when he was asked about the incident in Sulu.

"In the strictest sense of the word, we were hostaged because we were prevented from leaving the camp. But there are other elements to say that we were just ‘hosted’ because we were treated well," Dolorfino said.

He was part of the group of 15 government officials and military personnel that was detained from Friday morning until Sunday afternoon in Panamao, Sulu by the MNLF under the command of Ustadz Habier Malik.

This is the first time that a member of the government peace panel had used the term "hostage" to describe the incident.

The government peace panel led by Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Jesus Dureza has shied away from describing the incident as a hostage-taking, primarily because of the sensitivity of the matter in light of the existence of a peace agreement between the government and the MNLF.

Dolorfino said that national interest is at stake in the government’s relation with the MNLF, particularly because the group has been providing assistance in the campaign against the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

"At present we are having an operation against Abu Sayyaf and JI and it took us a very hard time to destroy the alliance. It’s of greater value to our national interest that we maintain that cooperation at present between MNLF and the Armed Forces in running after ASG and JI," Dolorfino said.

"If we announce retaliatory action against the MNLF in Sulu, we will go back to square one, in which it will be very hard for us to operate (against the Abu Sayyaf) because there will be two groups we will be confronting in that island," he added.

Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez, who was also at the Senate for his own confirmation hearing before the CA, said the MNLF members involved could face charges of coercion or illegal detention based on the admission of Dolorfino that they were hostaged.

However, he also acknowledged the importance of maintaining the peace agreement with the MNLF and how the filing of charges could affect the peace process.

"Strictly speaking, when there was an admission that they were hostaged, that means that there was at least the crime of coercion that was committed, or illegal detention because that was for more than three days. But as I said, considering that things have sort of simmered down and there’s nobody complaining about it, I don’t think there is need to pursue that because that would only place a wrinkle on the peace process," Gonzalez said.

The Armed Forces also insisted that the P450,000 given by government peace negotiators to the MNLF group that held Dolorfino’s team, was not a ransom payment but a form of compensation for the guerrillas who were slain after a mistaken encounter with the Marines in Sulu last Jan. 18.

"Well as far as the Armed Forces of the Philippines is concerned, there was no ransom paid. Part of the P450,000 was given by some local government officials. That’s what I heard ," Lt. Col. Bartolome Bacarro, AFP public information office chief, said.

He said Dolorfino was the one who brought the money to the MNLF camp in Mount Bitan-ag because he is a member of the negotiating panel.

"There should only be one armed forces, and if there are other groups that are going against that principle, then the AFP would take action," he said, adding that the military would react to reports of the presence of armed elements regardless of the group they represent.

Bacarro also stood firm on the AFP’s position that Dolorfino’s group, which included Undersecretary Ramon Santos of the Office of the Presidential Assistant on the Peace Process, were not taken hostage by the MNLF faction.

"I just got in touch with Gen. Dolorfino and he said he was taken out of context, when he appeared at the Commission on Appointments, on one of the questions that was raised," he said.

Bacarro said that Dolorfino also maintains that their group was not held hostage but were only invited as guests, to which they acceded. - James Mananghaya

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