ICRC kidnappers try to flee Jolo

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — KIDNAPPERS holding three International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) workers may be trying to flee their stronghold in Jolo, police said Friday.

Police have set up roadblocks to prevent the kidnappers moving Italian Eugenio Vagni, Andreas Notter of Switzerland and Filipina Mary-Jean Lacaba off Jolo island, a police statement said.

The three were abducted while visiting a jail as part of a Jolo humanitarian mission on January 15.

No group has claimed responsibility for the abduction and it was unclear what the gunmen wanted.

Jolo is the main island in the Sulu group, a lawless, predominantly Muslim province where the Abu Sayyaf, an Islamic militant group that has kidnapped foreigners and bombed Christian targets in the past, operates with several hundred gunmen.

The ICRC said earlier it had been in contact with the captives by telephone and reported them saying they had not been physically harmed.

It has also appealed to the kidnappers to release the trio.

The police statement said the kidnappers were moving their captives toward coastal villages on the island’s west coast and “allegedly looking for a seacraft (boat)”.

Police checkpoints were set up in the area on Thursday “to deter the reported movements of the kidnappers allegedly transferring the victims to (another) place in Sulu via seacraft,” said the statement by regional police commander Chief Superintendent Bensali Jabarani.

Lt. Col Ernesto Torres, military spokesman, said US military intelligence would be used to help find the abductees.

“They have signified their intention to share whatever information that they could get so that the victims may be rescued alive,” he told reporters without giving details.

The Americans are stationed in small numbers on the island to train Filipino counter-terrorism forces.

An operational agreement between the two military allies bars the US forces from taking part in actual combat, except in self-defense.

Torres said the accord also allows the Americans to “use unmanned aerial vehicles” for gathering information.