Philippines: Mindanao hostage crisis jeopardizes aid work

A hostage crisis involving three International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) workers may force agencies to stop bringing assistance to some areas of the Philippines, officials told the UN news agency IRIN. Stephen Anderson, the World Food Programme (WFP) country representative, said additional protection measures for his 60 local and foreign staff were paramount as the situation in Mindanao had become “dramatically more insecure”.

The kidnapping of Filipina Mary Jean Lacaba, Italian Eugenio Vagni and Swiss national Andreas Notter had affected staff morale, Anderson said. “We’ve had some staff coming in from the outside and when they are given a choice between going to Mindanao and some other place, they choose elsewhere. They are nervous. We’ve had staff who have chosen not to come here,” Anderson said.

Lacaba, Vagni and Notter were taken by Abu Sayyaf militants at gunpoint on Jan. 15 in Jolo, a southern island and Muslim stronghold, where government troops have been battling the rebels for years. Abu Sayyaf has not publicly demanded a ransom, although previous abductions have led to millions of dollars changing hands. Deadly clashes last week led to several Marine deaths, and dozens wounded on both sides, including the Abu Sayyaf leader Albader Parad.

Another Abu Sayyaf unit is holding Sri Lankan peace advocate Omar Jaleel from the Nonviolent Peaceforce group, who was kidnapped on Feb. 13 on the nearby island of Basilan. His fate remains unknown, although military reports have said he was sighted a week after he was abducted. The kidnappers of the ICRC staff have been cornered in a remote jungle area on Jolo, and have threatened to harm the hostages if troops continued to advance. Amid the tense stand-off, Abu Sayyaf offered to free one of the hostages but then reneged.

In December, a truck contracted by WFP to deliver aid to a strife-torn area in Lanao del Sur province in Mindanao was ambushed by armed men, killing one Filipino. The attack was blamed on a Muslim bandit group. (IRIN, March 25)

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