Thursday, January 29, 2009

Don't risk self, Moro rebels tell Filipino actor who wants to negotiate with Sayyaf to free Red Cross staff

Three kidnapped Red Cross workers Swiss national Andreas Notter, Italian Eugenio Vagni and Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba pose with Sulu deputy governor Nur Anna Sahidulla on Wednesday, January 28, 2009 in the hinterland of Indanan town. (Mindanao Examiner Photo / Nickee Butlangan)

SULU, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / Jan. 29, 2009) – Moro rebels have dissuaded a Filipino movie star from negotiating with Abu Sayyaf militants holding hostage three members of the Red Cross in the southern island of Sulu.

This after Robin Padilla, who converted to Islam, was reported to be helping in the negotiation for the safe release of Swiss national Andreas Notter, Italian Eugenio Vagni and Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba.

“This is an unsolicited advice, but we are offering this as a sign of our concern to you and to protect the image of Islam and the Muslims now defiled by most or all of the current leaders of the Abu Sayyaf Group,” said Muhammad Ameen, a senior leader of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the country’s largest Muslim rebel group.

Ameen said: “The kidnappers have only one thing in mind and that is money and they don’t discriminate whether you are their co-religionists or not, as long as you have the capacity to pay ransom.”

Padilla, who was in Zamboanga City on Wednesday, previously negotiated with the Abu Sayyaf for the release of several students and teachers kidnapped in 2000 in Basilan Island.

Nur Misuari, head of the Moro National Liberation Front rebel group which signed a peace treaty with Manila in 1996, also offered to help in the negotiations to free the Abu Sayyaf.

The three aid workers were kidnapped January 15 after inspecting a humanitarian project at a prison facility in the town of Patikul. Police linked a dismissed jail guard, Raden Abu, to the kidnapping, and said he handed over the hostages to the Abu Sayyaf headed by Albader Parad and Abu Pula.

On Wednesday, kidnappers allowed Sulu deputy governor Nur Anna Sahidulla to see and talk to the hostages on a hinterland village in Indanan town. The hostages said they are being treated fairly and were allowed by their captors to use their laptop and cell phones.

The hostages have also asked for books and personal grooming items that will be delivered by a contact, according to Filipino Senator Richard Gordon, who is the head of the Philippine National Red Cross.

Photographs of the meeting were also released to the media. They were taken from a mobile phone and showed Notter, Vagni and Lacaba posing with Sahidulla.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has confirmed the meeting, but declined to make any further details available regarding the location or how the contact was made in order not to jeopardize the safety of captives.

“It's a positive sign that this face-to-face contact took place,” said Alain Aeschlimann, the head of the ICRC's operations for Asia Pacific in Geneva. “According to Vice-Governor Sahidulla, they are fine and in good health.”

He said there has been regular phone contact between the Red Cross and the abducted staff since they were snatched. The latest call with the three took place on Wednesday morning.

”They continue to sound calm and composed and say they are doing alright,” said Aeschlimann. “We are always glad to be able to hear their voices and know they are together. Their loved ones are thinking about them all the time and trying to stay strong, while continuing to hope that Eugenio, Mary-Jean and Andreas will be home soon.”

Sulu Governor Sakur Tan maintained that the government will not pay ransom in exchange for the freedom of the captives. “We are firm with that policy. The government will not pay ransom to the kidnappers in exchange for the release of the aid workers,” he said.

Tan, head of the crisis committee, said the photos released to the media are proof that the negotiations are positively developing. "It shows that the task force is doing alright and that we are doing something on our level to address the problem," Tan said in a television interview on Thursday.

The ICRC said it is aware of other information circulating in the media regarding discussions with the kidnappers and efforts to try to resolve the situation.

“At this stage, the ICRC can only confirm that direct contact was established with the kidnappers. We are not in a position to comment or disclose any further information.”

“We appreciate everyone's understanding during this difficult time that we must be very cautious in what we say to avoid any risk of jeopardizing the safety and well-being of Mary-Jean, Andreas and Eugenio, or the possibility of achieving a positive outcome,” Aeschlimann said. (With a report from Nickee Butlangan)

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