Friday, August 13, 2010

Kidnappings-for-ransom, virtual cottage industry in Mindanao

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / Aug. 13, 2010) - Kidnappings for ransom remain the biggest threat to personal security, second to terrorism in the restive, but mineral-rich region of Mindanao in the southern Philippines and efforts are being taken by government and military to address these problems by providing education and job opportunity.

Muslim and communist rebels are also actively operating in the region and had been many times linked by authorities to the spate of kidnappings and killings in Mindanao.

The Abu Sayyaf, which means “Bearer of the sword,” has been tied to dozens of kidnappings over the past decade in the provinces of Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi – all in the Muslim autonomous region; and Zamboanga City and other areas in Western Mindanao. The group, authorities said, has links with the al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiya terror networks and is responsible in many bombings in key areas not only in Mindanao, but also in the Philippine capital.

Some leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, were also accused as behind many kidnappings-for-ransom, some of them involving foreign missionaries in Mindanao.

And so were other smaller criminal groups such as the Pentagon Gang, whose members were former rebels of the MILF.

Authorities also blamed the communist New People’s Army in several abductions of soldiers, policemen and even civilians suspected of working or passing information to the military about the rebel group. But unlike the Abu Sayyaf or the MILF, the NPA usually abduct their victims for political reasons.

Security officials said the Abu Sayyaf is the most notorious militant group involved in kidnappings-for-ransom and victimized mostly wealth Filipino traders and foreigners, but lately had been targeting even ordinary people who can pay ransom for as low as P100,000. And those who cannot pay are beheaded.

Officials said the Abu Sayyaf uses its ransom collections to purchase weapons and fund future terror attacks in the country and were believed channeling funds to al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiya.

Among the highest-profile kidnappings carried out by the Abu Sayyaf were the 2000 raid cross-border raid in Malaysia where it took 21 mostly Western holidaymakers and ransomed them off for millions of dollars to private negotiators of foreign governments whose citizens had been kidnapped.

It also kidnapped Jeffrey Craig Schilling, an American citizen, while traveling in Sulu province also in 2000. It was followed the next year with the kidnapping of 20 people, including American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham, and compatriot Guillermo Sobero, who was later beheaded.

Abu Sayyaf militants also kidnapped dozens of Filipinos, including teachers and students and a Catholic priest in a raid of a town in Basilan province. And this was followed through the years by kidnapping Filipino traders, but in 2008 the militants seized a popular local television news anchor Ces Drilon and his two cameramen and a guide while on their way to clandestinely interview an Abu Sayyaf leader.

And in January 2009, Abu Sayyaf kidnapped three members of the International Red Cross - Andreas Notter, of Switzerland; Eugenio Vagni, of Italy and Filipina Mary Jean Lacaba. And there was suspicion that ransoms were paid to the kidnappers either in Malaysia or Indonesia after authorities claimed that Mauiya, an Indian Jemaah Islamiya militant, was negotiating with the hostages’ representatives.

Sri Lankan peace worker, Omar Jaleel, of the Nonviolent Peaceforce, was also taken in Basilan the same year; and so were other Filipinos seized in the province and Zamboanga City.

In 1998, Italian priest Luciano Benedetti was kidnapped by rogue MILF rebels and released after eight weeks in captivity. In 2001, renegade MILF rebels also snatched Italian priest Giuseppe Pierantoni as the 44-year-old from Bologna said mass in the parish church of Dimataling town in Zamboanga del Sur and missionary Giancarlo Bossi, of the Pontifical Institute of Foreign Missions, in Payao town in Zamboanga del Sur in 2007.

Last year, rogue MILF rebels also kidnapped Irish priest Michael Sinnott from his missionary house in Pagadian City and freed months later after ransom was paid.

Officials said kidnappings-for-ransom has become a lucrative business for rebels and criminal syndicates in Mindanao, where many areas are underdeveloped and job opportunities are scarce. Sometimes gangs kidnapped civilians and hand them over to rebels in exchange for a cut in the ransom. Poverty has been blamed for many kidnappings in the South.

A Japanese citizen, Toshio Ito, has become the latest victim of kidnapping in the southern Philippines. The 63-year old Hiroshima native was kidnapped by 10 armed men from his home in Pangutaran Island in the Sulu archipelago on July 16.

Marine Brigadier General Rustico Guerrero, a veteran commander of military forces in Sulu, blamed poverty and lack of education to the spate of kidnappings in Mindanao. “The root causes of all there are poverty and illiteracy. There is a need to address these problems and other social issues. If there is jobs for everybody or livelihood or better access to education, I guess we can reduce if not minimize kidnappings and other crimes. These people resort to crimes because there is no opportunity for them,” he told the Times.

Guerrero said the military is now working closely with various local and international nongovernmental organizations, local government units, and other governments in providing alternative approach to solve the problems of illiteracy and bring humanitarian projects in mostly poor areas.

He said soldiers also act as teachers to villagers and provided them basic reading and writing skills. “Community development and assistance are very important. We now work hand-in-hand with the local government and with other stake holders and multi-sectoral groups to bring about change in the community. Combat operation is not the answer to all these problems, but the involvement of all sectors in bringing about change for the good of all,” Guerrero said.

Even Governor Sakur Tan agrees that education and livelihood opportunity is very important to everybody, especially in Sulu where the Abu Sayyaf is actively operating.

“This is why we have prioritized education and organized cooperatives in Sulu to provide better opportunities to all, but this will, of course take longer than we want it to be, for the simple reason that we need the cooperation of all sectors here. Discipline and unity are needed to achieve these aspirations and we will achieve this even if it takes longer as long as we are determined to make a change and change shall happen,” Tan, a known philanthropist, said in a separate interview.

Tan has built many schools and housing projects in Sulu the past years of his administration even if there is no funding or not enough help coming from the Muslim autonomous government.

“We have been working very patiently to provide more jobs and other humanitarian projects beneficial to all. We are working together with the different sectors, private and nongovernmental organizations, and countries that are aiding us. We don’t want kidnappings or terrorism to thrive and that’s why we are working so hard to eradicate crimes and bring peace and progress to Sulu,” he said.

US troops are currently training Filipino forces in Sulu and are active in humanitarian missions. They have built schools, roads and clinics, among others worth over $10 million since 2006 in the province.

Washington also funded the rehabilitation of the airport in Sulu through the US Agency for International Development's Growth with Equity in Mindanao Program which also provided various infrastructure projects in the province in partnership with Tan. And so in other provinces in Mindanao, particularly in the impoverished Muslim autonomous region where kidnappings-for-ransom are most frequent and where rebels are actively operating. (Mindanao Examiner)

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