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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Red Cross workers kidnapped

MANILA: Three workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross were abducted Thursday by men believed to be members of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group in the southern Philippines, officials said.

The abduction, the latest in a string, took place in the town of Patikul, on Sulu, a southern island province where Abu Sayyaf and other rebel groups have been active.

Military officials identified the victims as Andreas Notter of Switzerland, Eugenio Vagni of Italy and Jean Lacaba of the Philippines.

The military said it had conducted a "hot pursuit" operation and recovered the victims' Red Cross vehicle.

Lieutenant Steffani Cacho, a spokeswoman for the army, said the workers had arrived on the island two days earlier.

"They were advised about the security situation on the island, but because the ICRC is a neutral organization, they refused armed escorts," Cacho said in an interview.

Although there was no immediate claim of responsibility, "the possibility is great" that Abu Sayyaf was responsible, Cacho said. Recent kidnappings in Sulu and Basilan, another island province nearby, have been attributed by the military to the group.

The Red Cross in Manila said its three workers were in Sulu to inspect a jailhouse as part of its efforts to improve prisons in the Philippines.

"I am appealing to the Abu Sayyaf to free those people, because they are neutral in any conflict," said Richard Gordon, chairman of the Philippine National Red Cross, Reuters reported. "They do not realize this, but these people help them if they get wounded and get them out of the conflict areas."

The abductions took place near the Sulu provincial jail, where the workers had also carried out water and sanitation projects, said Roland Bigler, a Red Cross spokesman in Manila.

Cacho said the Red Cross had alerted the authorities when the victims failed to make their flight Thursday morning to Zamboanga, a city near Sulu.

Militant Islamist separatists on Basilan and other southern islands formed the Abu Sayyaf group in the early 1990s. It has been designated by the United States as a terrorist organization, and its ranks, officials here say, have been greatly reduced because of a joint counterterrorism effort by the Philippine and U.S. governments that began in 2002.

Abu Sayyaf was blamed for an incident in 2001 when three kidnapping victims were beheaded and another in 2004 when a ferry was bombed, killing 100 people. In recent years, it has been trying to fashion itself again as an Islamist organization, and, according to officials and experts, has allied with Jemaah Islamiyah, the Southeast Asian terror network linked to Al Qaeda and implicated in numerous bombings in Indonesia.

Lately, Abu Sayyaf has degenerated into kidnapping, extortion and banditry, and it has become notorious for rapes and decapitations.

Military and police officials said that more than two dozen people had been abducted in the south since October, apparently by Abu Sayyaf, including a 9-year-old girl who was released in late December after two months in captivity. Reports indicated that ransoms had been paid in some of the abductions.

"They're back kidnapping people for money," said Cacho, the army spokeswoman.

By Carlos H. Conde (IHT)
Published: January 15, 2009

Credit: www.iht.com

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