Less than 13 days before they assume office, members of the incoming Cabinet security cluster of president-elect Rodrigo Duterte are making last-ditch efforts to prevent another beheading by the Abu Sayyaf.
Incoming justice secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II said they are trying to help save the remaining hostages from being executed by the Abu Sayyaf, citing in particular Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad.
While they have not been officially sworn into office yet, Aguirre told The STAR that Duterte has given them the go-signal to help resolve the Abu Sayyaf hostage situation at the soonest possible time.
“We are trying to get the local officials on the ground to help us save the Norwegian hostage,” Aguirre said.
Aguirre disclosed Duterte and his incoming Cabinet members came to this decision after they discussed at length the hostage situation during their meeting at the Philippine International Convention Center in Pasay City last Wednesday.
Aguirre, however, declined to give details but stressed their priority for now is to prevent another beheading.
Reports indicated Sekkingstad is being lined up for the chopping block by the Abu Sayyaf if the ransom demand is not met.
The bandits have beheaded two other hostages, Canadians John Ridsdel and Robert Hall.
Ridsdel, a former mining executive, was beheaded in April while Hall was executed last Monday.
The two Canadians, along with Sekkingstad and Hall’s Filipina girlfriend Marites Flor, were snatched from Samal Island resort last
September and taken to Jolo island.
Aguirre also refused to comment on proposals to declare a state of emergency for a limited period to effect a military solution to the Abu Sayyaf problem in Sulu in particular.
“There are even proposals to declare martial law to address the Metro Manila traffic problem,” Aguirre quipped.
President Aquino and Duterte talked over the phone last Thursday while their respective transition teams met at Malacañang.
Details of their telephone conversation were not revealed, except that the outgoing President congratulated and assured his successor of assistance, if asked to help.
It is public knowledge that Duterte has a lot of Muslim friends and supporters in Mindanao whom he could count on to help address the problem with the Abu Sayyaf bandits.
Aquino himself flew to Jolo on Wednesday to check on the military operations to rescue the remaining hostages.
“We are getting a clearer picture of what is happening here. We saw today how to refine our operations so we can successfully rescue the remaining hostages,” Aquino told reporters traveling with him.
Aquino told a press briefing that he ordered “refinements” in the military operation against the Abu Sayyaf.
Aquino though refused to elaborate, citing operational security.
He said that he apologized to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for the murders of the two Canadians.
Aquino yesterday told reporters during a luncheon at a Chinese restaurant in Binondo, Manila that he was hoping there would be one viewpoint with regard to the Abu Sayyaf, that it is an “issue or a problem that impacts the country negatively.”
“And as fellow patriots, let us assist each other in resolving successfully the current situation,” he said.
Aquino, who is due to step down on June 30, said he had found it difficult to end the Abu Sayyaf threat during his six years in office.
Among the problems, he said, is the support the Abu Sayyaf is getting from the locals.
“They (the militants) have many resources. They can buy sympathy and we are in their place of origin. They have knowledge of the terrain. All of the advantages are theirs,” Aquino said.
He also said the military and police were understaffed, not having increased in size since 1986.
Came up empty
Meanwhile, security forces are checking on two possible areas where the headless body of Hall was believed dumped by the Abu Sayyaf.
Maj. Filemon Tan Jr., spokesman for Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom), said they validated two areas in Jolo where the body of Hall was reportedly left but declined to elaborate, citing operational considerations.
The troops, however, came back empty handed from one of the areas, he said.
“There was information, we validated, we went there and tried to retrieve but unfortunately it was no longer there. Probably they transferred it somewhere,” Tan told reporters in a briefing at Westmincom yesterday.
The Abu Sayyaf executed Hall last Monday and dropped his head near the Mt. Carmel Cathedral in downtown Jolo.
The body, however, has not been found.
The military believed the Abu Sayyaf was intentionally hiding or changing the location of the remains to humiliate the government.
Tan said they were not also discounting the possibility the Abu Sayyaf deliberately hid the remains of the victim as a diversionary tactic to confuse government forces.
Tan said the police and the local government of Jolo have mobilized the village leaders to help them locate the body of Hall.
Aquino has vowed to devote all his energy to eliminating the Abu Sayyaf before he steps down from office.
Aquino had admitted planning to impose martial law in Sulu in the effort to contain the Abu Sayyaf.
However, he backed down from the plan, saying it might backfire and gain more sympathy for the bandit group.
The Abu Sayyaf network is deeply entrenched and efforts to flush out its fighters have proved to be a big challenge for the thousands of troops engaging them.
The lucrative business of kidnapping has allowed Abu Sayyaf to invest in high-powered boats, weapons and modern communications equipment. With poverty and joblessness rife, it is able to recruit with ease.
Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Totoh Tan II said he favors martial law to be implemented in the province but only for a limited time.
His father, outgoing Vice Gov. Abdusakur Tan, said he supports the implementation of martial law or a state of emergency only if the government institutes programs to lessen the impact of military operations on the people and the community.
Officials of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) branded as “un-Islamic” the beheading of Hall during the holy month of Ramadan.
“Islam is against the killing of innocent people and mutilation of cadavers. It is also against kidnap-for-ransom activities,” ARMM regional vice governor Haroun Al-Rashid Lucman said.
Tribal leaders also condemned the execution of Hall.
The United Indigenous People of Mindanao led by Datu Mabayaw, Datu Sumidlak, Datu Sam Behing and Enrique Gavileno warned they would wage war against the Abu Sayyaf if it would spread its kidnapping activities to areas of the indigenous people in Mindanao.
The tribal leaders said some local officials and residents of Sulu are benefiting from the kidnapping activities of the Abu Sayyaf.
“Sadly some of the inhabitants in these islands of Jolo, Tawi-Tawi and Sulu are sympathetic to the Abu Sayyaf because sometimes (the bandits) are playing Robin Hood and you may wonder why until now local officials of said islands have not taken initiatives and (remained) silent,” the group said.
The military had said some residents and relatives living in the islands are helping the bandits. – Aurea Calica, Roel Pareño, Ben Serrano