INTERIOR and Local Government Secretary Ronaldo Puno today stressed the government did not grant any demand of the Abu Sayyaf group in exchange for the release of Filipino Marie Jean Lacaba and attributed her freedom to the “pressure” exerted by government security forces against the terrorists in Sulu province.
“There were demands but none has been granted,” said Puno during a press conference at Camp Crame formally announcing the release of Lacaba who was subsequently turned over by top military and police officials to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Zamboanga City at nine in the morning.
Puno, however, did not elaborate on the demands but described them as “impossible.” Lacaba was released by her Abu Sayyaf captors around 9 p.m. Thursday in Sitio Katian in Barangay Lambayong, Indanan town to Sulu Vice Governor Lady Ann Sahidulla, who is also a member of the multi-agency Task Force ICRC. Two other ICRC workers–Swiss Andreas Notter and Italian Eugenio Vagni–remain in captivity.
Lacaba was immediately reunited with members of her family who were fetched from Davao and flown to Zamboanga to welcome her back.
“There has been a release, there was no ransom paid. I believe that the release was a result of the change of environment for the kidnappers in Sulu,” said Puno, apparently referring to more “coordinated effort and intensified actions” by government authorities as a result of the declaration of state of emergency by Sulu Governor Abdusakur Tan, also head of the Task Force ICRC.
“I believe that it encourages everyone to proceed with the same course of action because it has been shown and proven to be useful in trying to convince the kidnappers that the only course of action for them is to release the hostages to the safety of the authorities,” Puno added.
He also stressed that Lacaba’s release only showed the government is right on track in resolving the Sulu hostage crisis that has been dragged for more than two months now.
The three ICRC workers were snatched January 15 after inspecting a project at the Sulu provincial jail in Patikul town.
Lacaba’s release came two days after the lapse of Abu Sayyaf sub-leader Albader Parad’s ultimatum to start beheading the three hostages if government forces continue to reject total pull out, and after the troops were redeployed to areas identified as kidnappers’ lairs in various parts of Sulu province ready to launch assault.
“There is much more to be done and we intend to do everything that is necessary until the hostages are safely released,” said Puno, as he branded the release of Lacaba as an “important sign of willingness” to free the other two hostages and expressed openness for considering the demands of the Abu Sayyaf.
“That’s why we’re very careful studying the demands or request for pullback or redeployment or whatever because like what I said, if it looks to us like it’s going to lead to release of the other two, it will be more seriously considered but if it looks like it’s another attempt to get us to leave the area so that they can create more trouble then that’s going to be very difficult to grant to them,” Puno explained.
Puno, however, refused to give any information regarding the possible release of the two foreigners but expressed confidence that with Lacaba’s release hopes are high for Notter and Vagni.
“Again we cannot speculate. We are hoping for the best, preparing for the worst but it’s a relief that we have one already back with us and I hope that with the same reasoning that brought them to release Lacaba they will release the other two,” Puno said, adding “they apparently are in good condition,” referring to the Swiss and Italian.
“I think that we are better off than we were a week ago in the sense that I believe that the kidnappers are now more aware of the limitations that they face and the wisdom of releasing the hostages than they were a week ago,” he further said.
Puno also said reports showed the Abu Sayyaf is now suffering “depletion” both in manpower and other resources as a result of the intensified police and military efforts in Sulu. He said the number of Abu Sayyaf bandits now holding the hostages is down by half of the original number.
“So I would think that the efforts of our uniformed personnel on the ground are starting to bear fruit and hopefully the Abu Sayyaf is starting to realize that it is the better part of prudence and discretion to just release the two hostages and if possible save themselves,” Puno pointed out.
Both Puno and Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro, however, maintained that the primary objective in Sulu remains the safe release of the two remaining hostages and the neutralization of the Abu Sayyaf group comes secondary and that no offensive operation would be launched against the terrorists.
“The policy remains the same and such is not merely useful but it’s in accordance with the law as provided for by the local government code,” said Teodoro, citing that the local government executive in Sulu takes the lead role supported by the police and the military. Philippine News Agency