Philippine troops ready to pull back to save hostages


Sat, Mar 28, 2009 - Page 5

The government is ready to pull security forces back from a militant jungle stronghold in the southern Philippines in a last-ditch attempt to save three Red Cross hostages threatened with beheading, officials said yesterday.

Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said Philippine marines had withdrawn to their barracks on Jolo island and that the government was considering pulling back police and civilian militiamen from a loose cordon around a guerrilla stronghold to facilitate negotiations for the hostages’ release.


Abu Sayyaf militants have given the government until Tuesday to pull back or they said they would behead one of the three Red Cross workers held since Jan. 15.

“We can reposition a little bit more” to allow the negotiations to continue, Jolo Governor Satur Tan said.

He said police and armed civilian volunteers were currently positioned in a 6km radius to prevent the militants from slipping through.

Tan refused to say how far they would move, but Puno made it clear the government could not meet a demand for a wider pullout that would almost certainly give the militants too much space to maneuver.

“We will not surrender the entire province to the demands of the kidnappers, as much as our hearts bleed for the hostages,” Puno said. “We are still willing to continue discussing everything, to continue with negotiations whenever possible to convince them to be reasonable.”

“We hope they change their decision in what they intend to do with the hostages and settle this thing peacefully,” he said.


If the militants harm the hostages, Tan said the government would “finish them off.” He also warned that no ransom would be paid, saying it would only buy more guns for the Abu Sayyaf and encourage more abductions.

The US-backed military, which has been battling the Abu Sayyaf for more than a decade, had earlier rejected any additional troop pullout, saying the militants could not be trusted.

But the International Committee of Red Cross said it was “extremely concerned” for the hostages’ safety and urged the military on Thursday to consider the withdrawal demand.

One of the hostages, Filipina Mary Jean Lacaba, told ABS-CBN television by cellphone on Wednesday that the time was running out.

Lacaba said she and her two European colleagues — Swiss Andreas Notter and Italian Eugenio Vagni — were afraid for their lives “every minute, every second because we don’t know when a firefight will suddenly start.”