Gov’t backtracks, agrees to Sulu pullout

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — THE government yesterday backtracked on its earlier decision not to pull out forces in Jolo, Sulu, saying it is ready to pull out troops to save one of the three Red Cross hostages threatened with beheading.

Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said the Philippine Marines have withdrawn to their barracks and the government is considering pulling back police and civilian militiamen from a loose cordon around the Abu Sayyaf stronghold.

Puno expressed hopes a pull back will facilitate negotiations for the hostages’ release.

“Considering the possibilities of moving lines provided they show some good faith, we might move lines a little bit. We hope they will be reasonable enough and allow negotiations to continue since we’ll be creating a safer area for them,” he said.

Puno said the order is that troops should be not within the firing range of the kidnappers.

He insisted that no ransom will be paid for the release of the hostages. “We’re just looking at a peaceful resolution of this case. I mean a reasonable repositioning of our forces,” he said.

Abu Sayyaf militants threatened to behead one of the three Red Cross workers if the military will not pull out by March 31.

“We are willing to move back a little but we can’t abandon the civilians, the farmers who are bringing their goods to the market, the truck drivers, the ordinary people there,” Puno told reporters.

He and the military earlier rejected a pullout, saying it would be tantamount to allowing the bandits to escape.

The DILG chief said he has been regularly communicating with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the ambassadors of Italy and Switzerland regarding the kidnapping of Swiss Andras Notter, Italian Eugenio Vagni and Filipino engineer Mary Jean Lacaba. The last known contact with the captives was last Wednesday and that they were already informed of the possibility one of them would be killed. “Of course, they are very concerned. We understand their anxiety and concern but the question really is: can we trust the kidnappers? Are they reasonable enough?” Puno said.

Lacaba earlier asked the government to pull out forces, saying time is running out on them.

Abu Sayyaf leader Albader Parad told Sen. Richard Gordon they will release one of the three hostages as soon as the Marines pull out of their positions.