ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / Apr. 27, 2009) – Police said it tightened security in the southern Philippine province of Sulu where Abu Sayyaf militants are holding the last of three kidnapped Italian aid worker Eugenio Vagni.
Police on Monday said the militants holding Vagni have split into smaller groups and the fate of the ailing Italian is unknown. “They have split into smaller groups to confuse security forces tracking them down,” Senior Superintendent Julasirim Kasim, the provincial police chief, told the Mindanao Examiner by phone.
He said another Abu Sayyaf faction in the town of Talipao was trying to link up with the group holding Vagni in Indanan town. Two Abu Sayyaf militants were killed and two other wounded in a clash April 24 with policemen in Talipao town, Kasim said.
He said a government school in Indanan town was also torched by unidentified men on Sunday in Indanan town, just 100 meter from a military post.
“We have tightened our security in Sulu, especially in Talipao, Indanan and the Parang town to prevent the Abu Sayyaf from regrouping or escaping the cordon around those areas,” Kasim said.
Manila has offered P500,000 reward for anybody who could provide information about Vagni, who is suffering from hernia.
Vagni and Swiss national Andreas Notter and Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba, all workers of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), were kidnapped January 15 after inspecting a humanitarian project in Patikul town.
Police said it rescued Notter in Indanan town on April 18 after the Abu Sayyaf tried to escape from a cordon guarded by armed civilians. On April 2, Filipino Red Cross staff Mary Jean Lacaba was released by the Abu Sayyaf.
Alain Aeschlimann, the ICRC head of operations for East Asia, South-East Asia and the Pacific, has repeatedly appealed for Vagni’s safe release.
“Andreas Notter last saw Eugenio on April 16 when they were separated. Since then the ICRC has not received any news. All of us at the ICRC are very concerned about Eugenio,” he said.
“For Eugenio's family, the nightmare of this abduction continues. His baby daughter is growing fast, and she has not seen her father for a hundred days. We hope that he will have her in his arms again very soon. There will be no rest for any of us until this crisis is resolved.”
Unconfirmed media reports said Vagni was handed over by his captors to another armed group in Sulu after Notter’s rescue. There were also reports that Lacaba and Notter were freed by the Abu Sayyaf in exchange for ransoms, but this was denied by authorities.
“We are aware of these reports and take them seriously. However, we have no further information on the matter. We are also renewing our appeal to the abductors' sense of humanity, especially in the light of Eugenio's medical situation. We urge them to release our colleague safe and sound, immediately and unconditionally,” Aeschlimann said.
The ICRC also appealed to the police and military to assure the safety of Vagni after several clashes between security and Abu Sayyaf forces in recent days.
“We maintain close contact with all those trying to find a solution to this crisis, in particular the local and national authorities. The ICRC reiterates that Eugenio’s safety is of paramount importance. We are once again asking all those involved in this crisis to avoid taking any action that could compromise Eugenio's safety. This is all the more important in view of his medical condition,” Aeschlimann said.
He said Lacaba and Notter were reunited with their families and despite the crisis the ICRC will continue to assist and protect the victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence in the Philippines, particularly in Central Mindanao, where tens of thousands of families are still living in evacuation shelters because of the fighting between military and Muslim rebel forces. (Mindanao Examiner)