A sacked prison guard was part of the armed gang who kidnapped three staff members of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the southern Philippines, authorities said yesterday.
Rescuers have had no communication with the gunmen, who on Thursday snatched Andreas Notter of Switzerland, Eugenio Vagni of Italy and Filipina Jean Lacaba, and the hostages’ condition and location are unknown, Lieutenant-General Nelson Allaga of the Philippine Marines said.
Their empty Red Cross vehicle was found after they missed a flight back to Manila following a visit to a jail where the guard used to work.
A spokesman for the Philippine office of the Red Cross said they had just visited a prison in the town of Patikul on Jolo island, a stronghold of the Islamic militant group Abu Sayyaf, to check on the condition of inmates.
“We have established the identity of one of the kidnappers. He is a dismissed guard of the Patikul jail,” Allaga said over local radio without naming the suspect.
Jolo Mayor Amin Hussin said a former jail warden in Patikul whom he did not name was under investigation for possible involvement.
It was unclear if he and Allaga were referring to the same person.
“I know him well. He’s a religious man,” Hussin told local television. “I don’t think he was involved, but if that’s what they say, we should let the law take its course.”
Allaga, the military commander in the western Mindanao area, said they had not established any direct link between the kidnapping and Abu Sayyaf.
“We’re not really sure whether the Abu Sayyaf was behind the kidnapping because no group has come forward to claim responsibility for the abduction,” Allaga told reporters.
He said kidnappings in Jolo, which is ruled by close-knit Muslim clans, are usually “complicated” operations involving two or more groups of armed men at a time.
“Sometimes one group would grab the victims and turn them over to another group,” Allaga said.
Hussin however insisted: “I heard the three are now in the custody of the Abu Sayyaf group.”
Hussin said local officials and political leaders in the mainly Muslim island, a hotbed of ransom kidnappings, were reluctant to help the national authorities initiate contact with the suspects out of fear that they will be accused of being in league with the abductors.
Philippine Social Welfare Secretary Esperanza Cabral said the latest abduction would not affect the work of the government and international aid agencies that are feeding and housing about 100,000 civilians displaced in the south by fighting between government forces and Muslim separatist rebels.
“The work of humanitarian assistance will continue. It’s a risk that all of us take, not just the ICRC,” she told reporters.
“We’re very sorry that this happened. We condemn the violent act that happened to these three people,” she added. “We hope that there will be no further incidents like this.”