The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has temporarily halted operations in the restive southern Philippines following the kidnapping of three of its workers, it was reported yesterday.
“We are temporarily halting operations in the area so we can revisit and assess our security arrangements,” Roland Bigler, the ICRC’s spokesman in the Philippines, was quoted saying on the GMA7 TV Web site.
He said the kidnapping on Thursday of ICRC workers Andreas Notter, a Swiss national, Eugenio Vagni of Italy and Filipina Jean Lacaba was a “setback.”
The ICRC team was kidnapped by armed men from the Muslim extremist group Abu Sayyaf as they left a jail on the island of Jolo, according to a military spokesman.
So far no demands have been made by the kidnappers.
“Our main concern is the safety of our colleagues,” Bigler said.
The Web site also quoted a statement by the Italian foreign ministry saying it has activated its crisis unit to monitor the situation.
The Italian embassy last activated the unit in 2007 when Italian priest Giancarlo Bossi was kidnapped in Zamboanga.
He was eventually released after months in captivity.
Embassy officials declined to comment if ransom was paid for his safe release.
“So far no ransom demands have been made and no one has heard from the kidnappers,” regional police spokesman Senior Superintendent Danilo Bacas said.
“Our operation along with the military to recover the victims is ongoing. Until now, there has been no feedback from the abductors,” Bacas said.
Mohagher Iqbal, chief negotiator for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the country’s biggest Muslim rebel group, said it was helping in the hunt for the ICRC workers.
“The latest information we received is that the kidnappers are transferring their captives by land and sea from one island to another,” Iqbal said.
Jolo is a known stronghold of the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf, a 380-member group blamed for some of the worst terrorist attacks in the Philippines.
Meanwhile, the Philippine military kept mum yesterday on continuing efforts to rescue the three ICRC workers.
First Lieutenant Esteffani Cacho, a regional military spokeswoman, said operations were continuing to rescue Swiss nationals Andreas Notter, 38, Eugenio Vagni, 62, and Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba, 44, but declined to give details, to avoid jeopardizing the effort.
The three ICRC personnel had just visited the provincial jail on Jolo island, 1,000km south of Manila, on Thursday when suspected Abu Sayyaf rebels blocked the path of their vehicle and seized them.
“This is not a media blackout but rather a precaution to ensure that the operation on the ground is not compromised and that the safety of the victims is not jeopardized,” Cacho said in a statement.
More than 1,500 government troops have been dispatched to scour the mountains of Jolo island in a bid to rescue the abducted ICRC personnel.
Police said they have taken into custody a witness who could help identify the kidnappers.
On Friday, Cacho said that based on initial field reports, it was the group of Abu Sayyaf Commander Alpader Parad that seized the ICRC staff.
Anna Nelson, a spokeswoman for the ICRC, said the organization’s operations in the strife-torn southern region of Mindanao were continuing despite the abduction.
“All the ICRC projects are fully operational in Mindanao,” she said. “The only affected project is the water and sanitation program in Jolo provincial jail for obvious reasons.”