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No sign of kidnapped Red Cross workers; Sayyaf role eyed

Elements of the Philippine Marines recover the vehicle used by the three members of the International Committee of the Red Cross kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf in the boundary of Indanan and Talipao, Sulu yesterday. JAIME LAUDE

ZAMBOANGA CITY – Troops began the search for the three kidnapped International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) workers in the dense jungles of Jolo but have so far found no trace of them as fears mounted that the kidnappers may have handed them over to the Abu Sayyaf, a group notorious for kidnap-for-ransom.

Officials said they have not received any communication from the kidnappers on the fate of the three Red Cross workers.

Western Mindanao Command (Wesmincom) chief Lt. Gen. Nelson Allaga said troops began to scour the dense jungles surrounding Patikul town, from where Swiss national Andreas Notter, Italian Eugenio Vagni, and Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba were snatched by unidentified armed men last Thursday.

The anti-terror Task Force Comet under Maj. Gen. Juancho Sabban led the military in the search for the kidnapped Red Cross workers.

Malacañang said yesterday that US Special Forces training Filipino troops in Mindanao will assist in the search.

Press Secretary Jesus Dureza said the US Special Forces would provide technical assistance for the Filipino troops since two foreigners have been abducted.

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Dureza said they are expecting the Swiss and the Italian governments to get involved in rescue efforts.

Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for its part, has activated its Crisis Unit at the Italian embassy in Manila to monitor the situation.

Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said the Crisis Unit was activated upon receiving word of the kidnapping of 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. The ICRC in Geneva has in turn activated a ‘cellule de crise’ to follow the case,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The Swiss embassy in Manila has yet to issue a statement regarding the kidnapping of their national.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has been coordinating with the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) and concerned agencies to gather the latest developments on the abduction.

Foreign Affairs spokesman Bayani Mangibin said the DFA also instructed its regional consular office in Zamboanga to monitor all developments.

Suspects identified

Officials said monsoon rains and thick vegetation in the area are hampering the search effort.

“We believe at this point they are still running. We also have no word regarding any ransom demand,” Wesmincom spokeswoman 1Lt. Steffani Cacho said.

Cacho said a large number of troops are involved in the search but have failed to catch up with the kidnappers.

Sulu provincial police chief Senior Superintendent Julasirim Kasim, however, revealed the kidnappers initially brought their hostages to Talipao town, a known stronghold of Abu Sayyaf leader Albader Parad.

Kasim said three of the gunmen who participated in the snatch have been identified.

Although he refused to name the suspects, Kasim said the three gunmen were known followers of Parad and Sulaiman Patah, another Abu Sayyaf bandit notoriously known as a kidnap-for-ransom gang leader.

According to Kasim, there has been no ransom demand yet since the kidnappers are still busy trying to evade the military and police searching for the hostages.

“Albader Parad and Sulaiman Patah were reported to be the ones who received the hostages after they (kidnappers) escaped,” he said.

Gov. Sakur Tan said one of the two gunmen involved in the snatch was a dismissed provincial jail guard.

Tan, however, refused to identify the suspect but stressed the former prison guard would be known in due time.

Allaga also announced that one of the kidnappers was a former prison guard.

“We have established the identity of one of the kidnappers. He is a dismissed guard of the Patikul jail,” Allaga said.

Jolo town Mayor Amin Hussin said a former jail warden in Patikul whom he did not name is under investigation for possible involvement in the kidnapping.

It was unclear if he and Allaga were referring to the same person.

“I know him well. He’s a religious man,” Hussin told local television. “I don’t think he was involved, but if that’s what they say, we should let the law take its course.”

Allaga said they had not established any direct link between the kidnapping and the Abu Sayyaf.

He said kidnappings in Jolo, which is ruled by close-knit Muslim clans, are usually “complicated” operations involving two or more groups of armed men at a time.

“Sometimes one group would grab the victims and turn them over to another group,” Allaga said.

Hussin, however, insisted: “I heard the three (Red Cross hostages) are now in the custody of the Abu Sayyaf group.”

Hussin said local officials and political leaders in Sulu were reluctant to help the national authorities initiate contact with the suspects out of fear that they will be accused of being in cahoots with the abductors.

He cited the case of Indanan Mayor Alvarez Isnaji who is on trial for the abduction last year of television reporter Ces Drilon and her crew.

Third party involvement

Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro said they are not ruling out the involvement of other armed groups in the kidnapping of the three Red Cross officials.

“It’s too early to say that the Abu Sayyaf terrorists were behind the abduction,” he stressed.

But if indeed the Abu Sayyaf was behind the snatch and there is a ransom demand, Teodoro said the government would never negotiate.

“Even if there will be (ransom demand) in the future, we will not negotiate in line with our ‘no ransom’ policy. We will hunt them down,” Teodoro said.

Armed Forces spokesman Lt. Col. Ernesto Torres added the military is not discounting the possibility that other groups were behind the kidnapping, adding that they are even worse than the Abu Sayyaf because of their disrespect for international norms on armed conflict in kidnapping workers of the Red Cross.

“They are worse than terrorists, what can you expect from them?” he said.

Lawmakers also condemned the kidnapping, describing it as a “tragedy.”

They said the kidnappers could be tried under the International Humanitarian Law for kidnapping Red Cross workers.

Sen. Richard Gordon, chairman of the Philippine National Red Cross (PNRC), said the kidnapping violated international treaties under the 1949 Geneva Convention on the conduct of warfare.

“These people are there only to help the people of Mindanao. They are innocent people protected by international treaties under the Geneva Convention. We appeal to those who have taken them to return them to us safely,” Gordon said.

Gordon said the incident could cause an international furor should the victims be harmed.

“The Swiss and Italian embassies have already contacted us and they are very concerned over this unfortunate incident. We have also already informed the victims’ next of kin,” he said.

Sen. Francis Escudero said the government should not give in to any demand for ransom. – With Paolo Romero, Sheila Crisostomo, James Mananghaya, Jaime Laude, Pia Lee-Brago, Aurea Calica, AP

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