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3 Red Cross kidnap victims alive, safe

January 17, 2009 14:45:00
Julie Alipala
Mindanao Bureau

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines -- (UPDATE 4) The three abducted members of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) who were abducted Thursday were able to call and spoke with their superiors in Manila, an ICRC official said Saturday.

Roland Bigler, ICRC communication cooperation delegate based in Manila, said Andreas Notter 38, head officer of ICRC Western Mindanao, and Engineers Eugenio Vagni and Marie Jean Lacaba had assured them that they were safe.

But the three captives said they do not know what group has been holding them since their abduction.

The police earlier said that Abu Sayyaf leader Albader Parad, who is based in Talipao town, was holding the victims.

Bigler did not provide other details of the talk except to say that "what is important is that they called and we are happy with the development."

"We deal with this situation very delicately and we are very careful in handling this situation," he said.

Bigler also read the official statement of Jean Daniel Tauxe, the ICRC head of delegation based in Geneva, which said the relief agency was "extremely concerned about the safety and well being of the three abducted staff in Southern Philippines."

Tauxe, in the said statement, said that "we are of course relieved to hear their voices and know that they are alive and our priority is ensuring that nothing jeopardizes their safety and we are hoping (families and the colleagues)for their safe and swift return."

Tauxe said the incident has not affected the ICRC operation in Central Mindanao, where about 300,000 people remained displaced.

The ICRC, Tauxe said, plans to continue its operation in the Philippines and expect to carry on with its mission of assisting and protecting those affected by the armed conflict.

But for Sulu, Tauxe said the incident means that the ICRC will not be able to carry out its specific project in Sulu for the time being.

The ICRC has an existing water and sanitation project at the Sulu provincial jail.

Bigler also declined to comment on the military’s decision to cut all information pertaining to government's effort to secure the safe release of the three kidnapped victims.

Earlier in the day, the military suddenly fell silent Saturday on the abduction in Sulu of three workers of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

"Please be informed that for the time being, Westmincom will not be able to provide updates regarding the ICRC abduction incident," Lieutenant Esteffani Cacho, spokesperson of the Western Mindanao Command, said in reply to an Inquirer query.

But Cacho said they were not implementing a news blackout on the progress of efforts to secure the release of the three from their captors.

The three ICRC workers had finished conducting field work in Sulu and were on their way to the airport when snatched just outside the provincial capitol in Patikul town.

The police confirmed that the victims were taken by Abu Sayyaf leader Albader Parad's group.

Senior Superintendent Julasirim Kasim, Sulu provincial director, said witnesses also claimed that Parad himself participated in the kidnapping.

Aside from Parad, he said another Abu Sayyaf leader, Sulaiman Patah, was seen with the group that snatched the victims.

"They were positively identified as part of the group that abducted the three ICRC workers," he said.

Earlier, Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro spoke of a massive military effort, which is now centered on Talipao, where the victims were reportedly sighted on Friday.

That was the last information provided by authorities regarding the incident.

"This is not a media blackout but rather a precaution to ensure that the operation on the ground is not compromised and that the safety of the victims is not jeopardized," military spokesperson Cacho said.

She pledged to release information "should there be some major developments in the case."

"We hope for your continued understanding, especially at this time when information is critical and could spell the difference between the success and failure of our efforts to safely bring home the victims," she said.

Cacho's reply to the Philippine Daily Inquirer's query on the progress of the manhunt in Talipao came after Teodoro made a brief stop over here from his visit to Sulu, where he proposed a ban on the media, on Friday.

During his stop over here, Teodoro proposed a ban on foreigners from visiting Sulu.

Aside from foreigners, Teodoro also said journalists should be banned from Sulu unless they coordinate their visit with authorities.

"We have to make it plain and simple to them that enough is enough, and we do not want to risk our soldiers' lives because of this (kidnappings)," he said.

Teodoro defended his proposal by saying that the Abu Sayyaf does not make any distinction between ordinary people, foreigners, and journalists.

Sulu police director Kasim said by phone that only those who do not coordinate will be banned from the province.

"We will not allow them to move around without notifying either the military or police, they have to register and we will provide them with escorts. If they will not follow then they better not stay here because we will surely end up in trouble again," he said.

Teodoro said the ICRC team had indeed coordinated before they came to Sulu but they declined security escorts offered by the military and the police.

"They refused escorts, they indicated in their communication that there should be no armed escorts," he said.

But Senator Richard Gordon, chair of the Philippine National Red Cross, said the international organization could not work that way.

"I just told my people. Even if you go to Quiapo, you have to let the military know," said Gordon. "That's not the way we work."

Red Batario, coordinator of the International News Safety Institute, also cautioned journalists and photographers "to exercise utmost precaution in terms of security in covering dangerous or hostile environments."

Sulu, for example, has a history of journalist kidnapping, the most recent of which was the kidnapping last June of ABS-CBN broadcaster Ces Drilon, two members of her crew, and peace advocate Professor Octavio Dinampo, Batario pointed out.

"In terms of security, the journalist on the ground has better judgment of the security situation. It's going to be a call of the journalists and photographers covering the area. They know better the security situation," he said.

Reacting to the ban, Batario said journalists and photographers have the responsibility to get the real story and the truth must not be sacrificed.

But he said they should "always think about the possibility of being kidnapped."

Dr. Reynaldo Guioguio, ICRC communication manager, told the Inquirer by phone that they were sad about the kidnapping because it happened in a place that is supposed to be safe.

Notter and his companions were taken just outside the Sulu provincial capitol in Patikul town.

"Despite the incident, we are not going to stop our projects there. We continue to monitor any projects we have set up," Guioguio said.

He also confirmed that the ICRC has already set up a response team "to coordinate efforts to get our colleagues back safely and its main thrust is to get them safely."

With reports from Veronica Uy, INQUIRER.net and Jeoffrey Maitem, Inquirer Mindanao

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