But Interior and Local Government Secretary Ronaldo Puno said the government would exhaust all peaceful efforts before ordering a rescue operation, which he said is easy to plan.
“We will do whatever it takes to save the hostages. We want to negotiate our way to settlement,” he told The STAR. He also ruled out beefing up police and military forces in the area.
Puno said there is “a high degree of certainty” that the hostages are still alive.
A military assault loomed as the whereabouts of the three hostages – Filipina Mary Jean Lacaba, Swiss Andreas Notter and Italian Eugenio Vagni – remained unknown as of yesterday.
The three have been held in the jungles of Sulu since Jan. 15. They were abducted after a visit to a local prison where the Red Cross is funding a water project. A military source said the hostages as well as their captors led by Al Bader Parad and Dr. Abu were seen in a coastal area in Parang near Indanan. “After the series of encounters in Indanan last month with the Marines, they relocated their position to Parang,” he said.
Proof of life
Philippine National Red Cross chairman and Sen. Richard Gordon asked the Abu Sayyaf for proof that three aid workers were alive as troops and tanks moved closer amid threats to behead the captives.
In Rome, Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano pleaded with the kidnappers to show mercy instead of “hate and intolerance.”
Napolitano called for the “unconditional release” of the hostages to “bring an end to a situation that has provoked the anxiety of the hostages’ families as well as that of Italian and international public opinion.”
Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan said an informant told him the three Red Cross captives were alive Tuesday hours after their kidnappers threatened to kill one of them if troops did not withdraw.
“I want to talk to the three. It is a measure to rebuild confidence,” Gordon said in a radio interview.
He also said Tan’s declaration of a state of emergency might spawn human rights abuses and distract authorities’ attention from the kidnapping crisis.
Puno also said the government’s crisis management team has not received any new demand from the bandits.
“Maybe the reason they’re not calling is that they’re looking for a new place to hide,” he said in Filipino.
The declaration of a state of emergency included curfew, roadblocks and redeployment of government forces near the Abu Sayyaf camp in Indanan, only a week after they pulled out in hopes the hostages might be freed.
Tanks and truckloads of Marines rolled out of a Jolo camp toward Indanan to surround the gunmen in a hilly jungle, Tan said.
Puno earlier rejected a demand for the government to vacate 15 Jolo villages in addition to loosening a security cordon around the rebels. He said such a move would leave the island’s civilian population exposed to rebel attacks.
Puno met police and military commanders in Zamboanga City Tuesday night reportedly for a briefing on a possible rescue operation.
Philippine National Police chief Director General Jesus Verzosa, for his part, assured Sulu officials of the PNP’s readiness to provide them with manpower and other resources if necessary.
A ground commander said one of the hostages was reportedly shot and wounded while trying to escape.
“We received unconfirmed reports that before the 2 p.m. deadline the other day, Notter tried to escape but was chased and shot by his kidnappers,” the military official, who declined to be named, said.
Being a former soldier, Notter was the most restless of the three hostages and could have indeed made a bold attempt to escape, the official said.
But until the report is verified, he said the crisis committee considers all the three hostages unharmed.
No direct hand
Malacañang is not taking a direct hand in the hostage crisis but is prepared to take decisive action, like ordering a rescue operation.
Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said the local crisis management committee, headed by Tan, would still be in charge.
But he said Puno and Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro have been ordered to stay in Zamboanga City to give directions on the handling of the crisis.
“Negotiation is still the primary effort. The order to reposition (troops) is only to show them the government responded (to their demands) in the hope the Abu Sayyaf will stand by (its) commitment to release hostages,” Ermita told a news briefing.
“But since they didn’t do that and even sent threats (to behead), the government is not without the necessary measures to confront them,” he said.
“We are talking with irrational people. They’re terrorists and taking hostage people working for the community is a sign of irrationality,” Ermita said.
He maintained that Mrs. Arroyo is keeping close tabs on the crisis.
“She has already provided general policy guidelines and let’s leave it at that, as it is being handled by Cabinet members,” he said.
Call for prayer
As the crisis deepens, the Catholic Church again urged Filipinos to pray for the release of the three kidnapped ICRC workers.
Jaro, Iloilo Archbishop Angel Lagdameo, who is also president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, circulated copies of a Pastoral Exhortation, which would be read in churches across the country.
“We exhort our Filipino brothers and sisters to reach out to both kidnappers and their hostages with prayers. Let it be a whole nation praying that all may experience true freedom and security,” Lagdameo said.
“May healing and forgiveness take place, hostilities cease and peace prevail,” he said.
“We appeal to both the groups of kidnappers and the government officials to use every peaceful means to address through peaceful process whatever is at the root of this on-going problem of kidnapping in order that there may be peace in Jolo, in Mindanao and the whole country,” the Iloilo prelate said.
For his part, Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales on Tuesday asked President Arroyo to work for a peaceful end to the crisis.
“It is true that in dealing with the unreasonable, there must be the exercise of firmness. But precisely because there is the non-use of reason, there needs to be the exercise of a mutually instructive dialogue, a sharing in the mutual shift in the focus of demands and the final disarming of threats and fears,” Rosales told Mrs. Arroyo in a letter.
Meanwhile, Anak Mindanao Rep. Mujiv Hataman asked Muslim religious and political leaders to help mediate for the safe release of the three ICRC workers.
“We further call on Muslim leaders, especially the religious leaders, to take on the challenge of mediating and convincing the captors to be humane and just, as what Muslims should really be,” he said.
Hataman also expressed support for Tan’s declaration of a state of emergency in Sulu. “But we hope that this will pave the way to nothing but the safe release or rescue of the victims. We still opt for a peaceful resolution to this crisis,” he said.
Senate minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. also voiced support for the declaration of a state of emergency in Sulu.
“The situation justifies emergency in Sulu. Local government officials should clear the target area of civilians,” Pimentel, who is from Mindanao, said.
Another lawmaker, Muntinlupa City Rep. Ruffy Biazon, urged the government not to give in to the demands of Abu Sayyaf Group for a full military pullout.
“What they have agreed to is a partial redeployment of troops which I think is the best thing to do in this situation. I believe that the government must not give in to the kidnappers’ demands,’’ Biazon, vice chairman of the House committee on national defense, said.
“The goal is to close all channels of escape and outnumber the opponents. Whether or not the military succeeds in saving the hostages, the main goal is to capture all of the perpetrators,’’ he said.
What about other hostages?
Sen. Francis Escudero, meanwhile, said the government should not ignore other kidnap victims still in the hands of bandits.
“While I commend the efforts being undertaken for the safe release of the three humanitarian workers of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the same amount of energy should be evident in actions to free other captives, especially teachers, now held in captivity in different parts of Mindanao,” the opposition senator said.
The Abu Sayyaf group has beheaded hostages in the past, including an American in 2001 and seven Filipinos in 2007.The US government has placed the Abu Sayyaf, which has about 400 gunmen, on its list of terrorist organizations