PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — “We already shed so many tears.”
These were some of the first words of Mary Jean Lacaba upon her release Thursday night after 78 days of captivity. Her kidnappers left her in a village without ransom being asked or given.
But the fate of the two other workers of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)—Swiss Andreas Notter and Italian Eugenio Vagni—remained unknown.
Alain Aeschlimann, ICRC’s regional chief, expressed relief at the release of Lacaba but said he remained concerned about the safety of the two other staff members.
“The nightmare of this abduction is not over,” he said.
“Once again, we ask that they remain unharmed. While we welcome this first positive move, especially after a very tense and difficult week, we reiterate our appeal to the kidnappers to let Eugenio Vagni and Andreas Notter go without delay and unconditionally.”
Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro and Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said that the 37-year-old Lacaba was abandoned by her kidnappers on Jolo Island, where the three ICRC workers were kidnapped Jan. 15 while on a mission to improve water facilities in a Jolo jail.
Vice Gov. Anne Sahidulla later fetched Lacaba in Barangay Paligi along the border of Indanan and Parang towns at around 7 p.m. and turned her over to the military, the officials said.
“She’s fine and she is undergoing medical treatment,” said regional police Chief Supt. Felizardo Serapio.
The ICRC worker was expected to be brought immediately to the Marine camp for “processing,” said Puno through his assistant, Brian Yamsuan. If she is fit to travel, she will be flown to Manila on Friday for a thorough medical checkup, he said.
“All of us are excited and happy,” said Lt. Gen. Nelson Allaga, Western Command chief. “It is good that she was safely recovered. Right now, she is resting and being attended to by physicians.”
Film footage shown by GMA 7 showed Lacaba being pushed in a wheelchair to a trauma clinic in the Jolo military camp. She wore a red hijab Muslim headdress and was talking on a cell phone.
Sahidulla, who has previously visited the hostages, said she went back to the kidnappers’ camp and talked to the Abu Sayyaf.
“When I reached the place, the talks were good. I convinced them to free Lacaba” she said.
“No ransom was asked or given,” said Sen. Richard Gordon, chair of the Philippine National Red Cross.
Gordon said that he talked by phone to Lacaba, who was weeping.
“I said, Jean, you make me cry,” he said. “She cried herself and she said ‘we already shed so many tears.’ I said calm down and relax.”
Gordon said Lacaba told him that the two other hostages had been through severe hardship and were exhausted and that if it was possible for the military to ease its operations.
“You can imagine their ordeal. It’s raining out there. Then it’s suddenly hot and they are walking at night. They are scratched by thorns. They get eaten up by mosquitoes. There is no water that is clean. They are under guard all the time,” the senator said.
“I hope we can get the other two,” said Gordon.
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, in a statement Thursday night, said:
“We are happy that Ms Lacaba is back with us and we hope that the Abu Sayyaf Group will also release the other hostages very soon. This is the answer to our people’s prayers and also confirmation that we should always stand behind our policy of dealing firmly with any form of lawless behavior.”
State of emergency
Lacaba was freed two days after Abu Sayyaf kidnappers put off a planned execution on Tuesday of one hostage despite the failure of the military to comply with their demand to withdraw all forces on Jolo Island.
Troops pulled out from the kidnappers’ hideout were redeployed after a state of emergency was declared in the area. Officials said Thursday that government forces had sealed off the area where the abductors and their hostages had been spotted.
Cell phone signals out
Rep. Yusop Jikiri said cellular and satellite phone transmissions covering Indanan, Parang and Patikul towns had been shut down by authorities since 8 p.m. Wednesday following the declaration of a state of emergency in the province.
“We know the forest and the mountain so we can find a way to locate them even without a cell phone signal,” said Jikiri.
He said that electricity also had been turned off in Indanan, his hometown, prompting him to go to Jolo town to communicate.
But in Rome, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini indicated that he had been able to contact Vagni, according to the Italian news agency ANSA.
The hostages “are alive, according to information in our possession,” said Frattini, following “contacts with our compatriot,” ANSA reported. It was unclear when the contact was made.
Jikiri, along with Muslim religious and political leaders, was able to negotiate a stay of execution, according to Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan, head of the hostage crisis management committee who earlier reported the hostages were alive.
Jikiri, who was dispatched by Malacañang to negotiate with the kidnappers, his former comrades in the separatist Moro National Liberation Front, had been in the Indanan area since Tuesday.
Jikiri also said that farmers reported that they saw around 300 armed men and possibly the three hostages at Sitio Pansul, Barangay Lipunos, Parang, but that he was treating this information as “second hand.”
No possibility of escape
Interior Secretary Puno said the authorities were trying to reestablish contact with the kidnappers, who he insisted had been prevailed upon by local religious leaders not to carry out their threat.
“Our focus is on trying to make sure that these kidnappers will get back in the direction of negotiations,” he said in a television interview.
Puno said the kidnappers were penned in a 15 square-kilometer area of Jolo.
“It is raining hard (there) and they cannot get away too far from that because it is the only source of water in the area,” he added.
“This has been their situation for a while now, and although there has been no offensive action taken against them, they have absolutely no possibility of getting away from the area,” Puno said.
He said the focus of government efforts was to make sure that kidnappers “head back in the direction of negotiation with anyone.”
Governor Tan said the kidnappers and captives were on the run as the government redeployed troops around a hilly area on Jolo close to their camp.
Provincial police chief Julasirim Kasim said earlier Thursday that government forces were “sealing off” areas where the gunmen and the Italian, Swiss and Filipino hostages had been sighted.
He said police were continuing to set up road checkpoints around Jolo but refused to give other details.
Also Thursday, the National Disaster Coordinating Council reported that about 100 families had sought shelter in evacuation centers in Indanan and Jolo town, fearing clashes. About 70 tents and food packs had been sent to the area by the provincial social welfare office.