Gunmen abducted three international Red Cross workers yesterday in a southern Muslim militant stronghold, triggering the worst crisis since Abu Sayyaf guerrillas kidnapped foreign tourists several years ago, officials said.
The three representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross from Italy, Switzerland and the Philippines were in a car on their way to Jolo airport after visiting a jail when motorcycle-riding gunmen intercepted them, said Senator Richard Gordon, chairman of the Philippine National Red Cross.
The driver and two other Filipinos were released and reported the incident, he said.
Jolo Governor Sakur Tan said the vehicle was recovered abandoned in nearby Patikul town, scene of many clashes between troops and al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf militants, notorious for terror attacks and kidnappings.
Gordon declined to say who may have been responsible, and Tan said “they are criminals. I do not care what group they belong to.”
“I will not make contact with them. We will operate against them,” he said.
He said about three to five gunmen were involved “but of course they have other companions.”
Some villagers saw the hostages being tied up and were cooperating with authorities in trying to track them down, he said.
“It is my hope that these people realize that the Red Cross is there to help them. The Red Cross is neutral,” Gordon said.
Tan said the three-member delegation arrived in Jolo island on Wednesday to look into the previous day’s jailbreak during which 12 inmates escaped and one was killed.
Military spokeswoman Lieutenant Estefani Cacho identified the kidnapped workers as Swiss Andreas Notter, Italian Eugenio Vagni and Filipino Jean Lacaba. She said the kidnappers were probably Abu Sayyaf.
Regional commander Lieutenant General Nelson Allaga said troops were pursuing them.
It was the most high-profile kidnapping of foreigners since 2002, when Abu Sayyaf gunmen snatched nearly two dozen tourists from a resort, including three Americans.
One was beheaded and the other was killed during a military rescue operation.
The incident prompted Washington to deploy troops in the south starting in 2002, but they are barred from combat.
A year earlier, Abu Sayyaf seized about 20 foreign tourists from Malaysia’s Sipadan resort and held them on Jolo for several months before they were released in exchange for millions of dollars, reportedly paid by Libya.
Several people on Jolo and nearby Basilan, including traders and construction workers, were snatched in the past months and all but one businessman have been released, usually for a ransom.
Security officials have said the militants are resorting to ransom kidnappings because they are running out of funds.
More than 380 Abu Sayyaf fighters — down from 1,000 from 2001-2002 — are hiding mainly in the hinterlands of predominantly Muslim Jolo and Basilan islands, according to police and the military.
The restive region is home to a decades-old Muslim separatist rebellion.