Monday, July 13, 2009

Military operations continue in Sulu after release of Italian hostage

Italian Red Cross staff Eugenio Vagni in Zamboanga City in the southern Philippines after his release Sunday, July 12, 2009. (Mindanao Examiner Photo)

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / July 13, 2009) – The Philippine military on Monday said operations to eliminate Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiya terrorists continue in the southern island of Sulu.

Terrorists have freed over the weekend an Italian hostage Eugenio Vagni after six months in captivity. Vagni, a Red Cross staff, was kidnapped in January along with two other aid workers Swiss national Andreas Notter and Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba – both had been released in April.

“Our operations against the terrorists are continuing in Sulu. We have troops pursuing them,” Army First Lieutenant Steffani Cacho, a spokeswoman for the Western Mindanao Command, told the Mindanao Examiner.

Vagni was released to Sulu deputy governor Nur Ana Sahidulla at around 1.15 a.m. near Indanan town.

Sahidulla said no ransom was paid for Vagni’s liberty, but the militants originally demanded as much as $2 million for his safe release. Other reports said some P50,000 were also given to the terrorists as payment for Vagni’s so-called “board and lodging.”

No other details were made available by the police and security officials did not give any statement surrounding Vagni’s release.

Italian philanthropist Armando de Rossi, who heads the 3P Foundation, helped Sahidulla in the negotiation for Vagni’s safe release. De Rossi pledged humanitarian and development projects.

“We want to thank all those who helped secure the safe release of Eugenio. The crisis (management) committee (headed by) and Governor Sakur Tan and all the others who made this (release) possible,” De Rossi said.

De Rossi’s foundation is active in humanitarian works in Sulu and had previously donated millions worth of aid to mostly poor villages in the province.

ABS-CBN television, which quoted unnamed sources, reported that the military would swap two wives of an Abu Sayyaf leader Albader Parad for Vagni. Both women were eventually freed by the military.

The two women, Rowena Aksan and Nursima Annudden, were arrested at a military checkpoint in Tagbak village in Indanan town on Tuesday along with four other militants Rabia Asiri, Marwina Salasain, Madrimar Bagadi and Midsfar Aksan. Soldiers also seized from them more than P300,000.

It was unknown why the six were not handed over to the police. The military implicated the six people in the kidnappings of Vagni and two other Red Cross workers, Swiss national Andreas Notter and Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba.

There were suspicions that ransoms were paid for the release of the aid workers. The Red Cross denied it paid ransoms in exchange for the freedom of Notter, Lacaba and Vagni.

The Abu Sayyaf had previously used ransoms collected from kidnappings to purchase weapons and finance terror attacks in Sulu and Mindanao.

Just barely two months after the Abu Sayyaf freed Lacaba and Notter, a series of bombings occurred in Mindanao that left scores of people dead and wounded. Authorities blamed the attacks to the Abu Sayyaf and the Jemaah Islamiya.

It was not immediately known whether the supposed ransoms paid for the release of the aid workers were used to finance the bombings.

Military and police intelligence reports said several Jemaah Islamiya terrorists are among the Abu Sayyaf that kidnapped Vagni’s group - Mauiya, Dulmatin, Zulkifli bin Hir and Umar Patek - who are all wanted by Indonesia for the spate of deadly attacks, including the Bali bombing in 2002. The US has offered at least $16 million rewards for their capture.

Sulu Governor Sakur Tan is also supporting military operation against the terrorists, saying, Abu Sayyaf hostilities must be stopped to spare civilians from terror threats.

“We need top protect our citizens from threats of terrorism. Terrorism must be stopped,” he said.

Tan is the only politician who came out publicly to declare an all-out war against terrorism in Sulu and public support is outpouring.

The United States listed the Abu Sayyaf and the Jemaah Islamiya as foreign terrorist groups alongside with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. Philippine authorities said the Jemaah Islamiya terrorists fled to Mindanao where they sought refuge under the protection of the Abu Sayyaf and rogue members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the country’s largest Muslim rebel group. (Mindanao Examiner)

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