Quote for the Week..

"Why are the country’s political leaders quick to act on amending the Constitution to change nationalistic provisions for the benefit of foreigners or to extend their terms of office but are allergic to amending the Constitution to address the people’s aspirations for self-determination?" - Marvic Leonen,Dean of the UP College of Law, in a keynote address delivered at the 1st International Solidarity Conference on Mindanao; March 16-18, 2009 in Davao City, Philippines.


Sunday, April 19, 2009

Another ICRC hostage freed

ZAMBOANGA CITY -- (UPDATE 8) A Swiss Red Cross worker is now free after being held hostage for over three months by Islamic extremists, officials said.

But conflicting version of how Andreas Notter regained his freedom Friday evening gave rise to confusion whether he was freed by the Abu Sayyaf or rescued by government security forces.

Notter himself said he was still confused because "everything happened very quickly."

"I'm still a little bit confused how it happened," a haggard looking Notter told reporters as he was formally turned over to Red Cross representatives by Sulu Governor Abdusakur Tan and Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno.

Notter talked about walking with his captors prior to his freedom, but exactly how the authorities got hold of him remained unclear.

"I walked out and I'm happy to be alive and safe," he said.

Notter, along with Italian national Eugenio Vagni and Filipina Mary Jean Lacaba, was seized by Abu Sayyaf group on January 15 while on a humanitarian mission as volunteer workers of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Sulu. Lacaba was released on April 2.

The government said it had no immediate details about the fate of 62-year-old Vagni, who was believed to be unwell and in need of hernia surgery.

Notter called on authorities to do everything they could to rescue Vagni, whom he said was in pain from his condition.

MalacaƱang welcomed news Notter has regained his freedom.

"This is very good news not only for Notter's family, friends or co-workers but everyone else who prayed for his safety, and for our military, police and government officials who worked tirelessly for his release,'' Press Secretary Cerge Remonde said over the government-run Radyo ng Bayan.

"We reiterate our call to the kidnappers to release the last hostage, and we commend the local crisis management committee, the police, military, the ulama and all those who in one way or the other has helped in the release of Mr. Notter,'' he said.

ICRC spokesperson Anastasia Isyuk said they had yet to talk to Notter.

“So far, we have not been able to see him or talk to him,” she said

But she said the ICRC remained concerned about Vagni.

"We're relieved to hear the latest news (about) Andreas and remain concerned about the safety of Eugenio," Isyuk said. "We are hopeful that he remains safe and unharmed."

Prior to Notter’s release from his abductors, the ICRC said it last heard from the two on April 14, two weeks after Lacaba’s April 2 release.

“Andreas and Eugenio made contact with the ICRC on Tuesday 14 April. They were also able to call their families on Sunday 12 April. Hearing their voices again more than two weeks after their last call was a relief for all of us,” said Alain Aeschlimann, head of delegation of ICRC Asia-Pacific.

Chief Superintendent Felizardo Serapio, chief of the Western Mindanao police's integrated police operation, said Notter was actually rescued by militiamen and members of the Indanan police force on Saturday morning.

"Notter was rescued by these groups consisting of Civilian Emergency Force (CEF) and the Indanan police. Actually I don't have a clear picture yet, everything is still garbled," he said.

Serapio said what was clear was that Notter was now free.

He said Notter was rescued near a government security cordon in the municipality of Indanan early Saturday morning.

"We got Notter near an established cordon," he said.

Lieutenant General Nelson Allaga, chief of the Western Mindanao Command, said Notter was found in Indanan town.

"I'm not sure what particular barangay in Indanan, but whether he was recovered, released or rescued, that I cannot say," Allaga said.

A leader of the civilian volunteers said he was one of those who fetched Notter.

But unlike Serapio and Allaga, the source said Notter was released by the Abu Sayyaf in the village of Lipunos in Parang, Sulu, near midnight Friday.

He said they initially thought that he was Vagni.

"Inaalalayan namin kasi nahihirapan lumakad kaya akala namin si Vagni (We helped him because he had difficulty walking and that is why we thought he was Vagni)," said the source, who requested anonymity for lack of authority to speak on the matter.

In a press conference aired on ANC, Tan said that Notter was taken by policemen to his residence at around 7 am Saturday.

Tan said that on Friday, he informed the Ulamas or Muslim scholars who have been helping in negotiation efforts, that a tactical operation would be undertaken by security forces on Saturday.

He added that Notter was left behind by the Abu Sayyaf group in Indanan while they were being pursued by police early Saturday morning.

During the press conference, Tan said that he hasn't spoken with Notter directly since he only allowed doctors to enter the room where the rescued kidnap victim was staying.

Armed forces chief General Alexander Yano declined to give further details of the rescue mission as he said it would compromise efforts to free the remaining hostage.

He said "non-violent" efforts were underway to free the Italian including dialogue headed by five Muslim clerics who were dispatched to the Abu Sayyaf's stronghold last week to negotiate.

Senator Richard Gordon, chairman of the Philippine Red Cross chapter, said there had been reports of intense clashes around Indanan late Friday, just a day after the military said it was prepared to rescue the hostages.

The Abu Sayyaf had threatened to behead one of the foreign hostages unless government forces pulled back from around their positions on Jolo.

They have been locked in an intense stand-off with troops after being cornered in a jungle area near Indanan, where the military said their supplies were running low.

Abu Sayyaf militants have kidnapped other Westerners over the past decade, many of whom, according to the Philippine military, were released after the payment of large ransoms.

The militants also murdered an American hostage, Guillermo Sobero, in 2001. The following year a second American, Christian missionary Martin Burnham, was killed in a military attack that led to the rescue of his wife.

The group is on the US government's list of foreign terrorist organisations, and a small number of American forces have been rotating on Jolo island since 2003 to provide intelligence information to their Filipino counterparts

By Julie Alipala with reports from Abigail Kwok, INQUIRER.net; Kristine L. Alave and TJ Burgonio, Philippine Daily Inquirer; and Agence France-Presse

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