SULU, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / Apr. 26, 2009) – Government forces clashed with the Abu Sayyaf on Sunday in the southern Philippine province where the militant group is holding a kidnapped Italian aid worker, officials said.
Officials said the fighting erupted in the hinterlands of Talipao town, but there were no reports of casualties. The Abu Sayyaf is holding Eugenio Vagni, the last of three international Red Cross workers seized snatched January 15 after inspecting a water and sanitation project in Patikul town.
“There was clash this morning. We still don’t know if there were Abu Sayyaf casualties in the fighting in Talipao,” said Senior Superintendent Julasirim Kasim, the Sulu police chief.
He said security forces are still tracking down Vagni who is being held by another Abu Sayyaf faction in Indanan town on the opposite side of Talipao. “We have no reports about Vagni,” he said.
Manila has offered P500,000 reward for anybody who could provide information about Vagni, who is ill and suffering from hernia.
Last week, police said it rescued Swiss aid worker Andreas Notter in Indanan town 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 head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) 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)