PCG men: We served as Abu cooks, masseurs

Evelyn Macairan, Roel Pareño - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - Throughout their more than three months in captivity by the Abu Sayyaf, Seaman First Class Rod Allain Pagaling and Seaman Second Class Gringo Villaruz of the Philippine Coast Guard were treated as servants by their captors – cooking for them, carrying their ammunition and even serving as masseurs in the jungles of Sulu.

Unshaven and listless, the two Coast Guard personnel were greeted with loud cheers and applause from the officers and men of the PCG upon their arrival yesterday at the PCG headquarters in Manila.

The two managed to escape their captors at the height of a military operation against the terror group last Wednesday. They had been held captive for 107 days when the chance to escape came.

“While at the ASG camp, the suspects became comfortable with the PCG men and they were treated as strikers and were ordered to do chores such as carrying heavy stuff, massage them and cook for them,” a PCG official said, referring to Pagaling and Villaruz.

Only the wife and the child of Pagaling were able to make it to the PCG headquarters yesterday because the commercial plane that was to take Villaruz’s family to Manila was unable to leave the Zamboanga airport due to bad weather.

Judith Pagaling and their three-year-old daughter Allaina arrived from Cagayan de Oro to welcome her husband.

After talking to him over the phone last Thursday, she knew he was already safe. “I would be able to get more sleep. I am very happy,” she said. She said she sought strength and comfort by praying the rosary.

Villaruz told the media in a brief interview that there were about 200 ASG men in the camp where they were held.

He said their captors panicked and forgot to secure them when the military began its assault.

“There was a sudden firefight and so we made a run for it. We did not think of anything else except to run until we escaped. There was chaos because of the firefight and we got separated,” said Villaruz.

The government troops reportedly first found Villaruz at around 7 a.m. the following day and his companion an hour later.

Pagaling reportedly said to himself “bahala na si Lord (everything is up to you Lord)” before making a dash to safety. In his haste to run away from his abductors, he fell off a cliff.

“The ones who were guarding me retreated because the rangers were on higher ground. My guard scampered,” Pagaling said.

Pagaling said four of the Abu Sayyaf guarding them were killed.

Pagaling and Villaruz said they waited the night out in the nearby dense jungle before they separated and found their way to a nearby village.

According to Pagaling, he was initially hesitant to approach civilians for help as they might be Abu Sayyaf sympathizers.

It was reported that about 20 ASG were killed in the firefight.

A source said that when the two PCG men were taken from Aliguay Island in Dapitan City last May 4, the bandits were in police uniform. They took their three hostages, including Aliguay Island barangay chairman Roberto Bulagao, and left on two motorboats.

When they were in Siocon, Zamboanga del Norte the abductors changed to civilian clothes. “At this time, they were chanced upon by a Coast Guard craft patrolling the area so the two boats hid in Zamboanga and only continued their travel to Jolo when the PCG craft had already left,” a source said.

They reportedly stayed on an island and when it became dark, they went to Sulu where they were fetched by a jeep that took them to the jungle.

PCG commandant Admiral Rodolfo Isorena thanked the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the local government and Transportation and Communications Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya for their help.

Isorena said Pagaling and Villaruz would undergo debriefing by the military, PCG and the Philippine National Police-Anti Kidnapping Group.

They would be given a two-week vacation and would be reassigned to a different position upon their return.

He said the terrorists at first demanded P100 million for each PCG officer but the amount was later reduced to P3 million and again raised to P10 million.

The first demand was relayed to the family of the hostages. On learning of the kidnapping, the PCG at once created Task Force Sagip.

Isorena said they felt time was running out when Bulagao was beheaded. “It felt like the ASG were sending a message that if we would not give in to their demands then our men would also suffer the same fate,” he said.

Isorena said that in accordance with the government’s no-ransom policy, they pursued negotiations led by the PCG’s Task Force Sagip chief negotiator Commodore Joel Garcia.

He credited Garcia for his interventions that delayed the execution of the two men.

“If you notice there were many deadlines given and the last was Aug. 13, so I feel that the negotiations done by our team were very successful because every time they would give a deadline, the decapitation did not happen,” Isorena said.

“Maybe they made three to four deadlines and nothing happened, so I think successful negotiations, back channeling (worked),” Isorena added.

As a result of this kidnapping incident and since they cannot avoid going to dangerous areas, Isorena said they would review their policies to ensure that a similar incident would not happen again.

One option they are considering is arming their safety inspection personnel. But he clarified that arming their men is no guarantee for their safety.

“At the moment the PCG’s deployment of its personnel is still small. Our sub-station only has three to four people, so even if we arm them but they would be attacked by a big group, we would be outnumbered,” he said.

Abaya, for his part, suggested that in such a situation, “never deploy a couple of guys. Make sure you are in a position that you could handle a certain degree of threat in the area, intelligence information is important to assess what are the threats in the area.

“In Metro Manila you don’t need heavy security. If you are down south, you calibrate your resources to deploy and the arms that you would use to secure your men,” he said.

But when asked if there was lapse in judgment regarding the deployment of personnel, Abaya said he was certain that when Bulagao requested for assistance in ensuring the safety of tourists, the two PCG men were not feeling the threat of getting snatched.

The DOTC chief added that they are continuously increasing the number of PCG men from about 8,000 to the targeted 15,000 personnel.

“So we are calibrating it, we cannot ask for the moon, we have our own limitations but we are steadily increasing, annually I think a little over 1,000 people are recruited,” he said.

“We have new ships coming in, we have helicopters so definitely there is much to look for in the PCG and much to be demanded of them,” he added.

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