ABS-CBN crew member freed


AFP

JOLO, Philippines—(UPDATE 4) One of three TV journalists abducted by suspected Moro extremists was freed in the southern Philippines late Thursday.

ABS-CBN cameraman Angelo Valderama was released around 7:30 p.m. to Sulu Vice Governor Lady Ann Sahidula, said Undersecretary Amilasan Amilbajar of the Office of the Presidential Assistant for Mindanao.

But prominent anchorwoman Ces Drilon and cameraman Jimmy Encarnacion were still in captivity, along with a Mindanao State University professor who had acted as their local guide.

The four were abducted on Sunday as they were heading to interview some Abu Sayyaf leaders.

“But this is a positive development…we’re happy even if one person only (had been released),” Chief Superintendent Joel Goltiao, police commander of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), told INQUIRER.net.

From Sahidula, Valderama was brought to the home of Indanan town mayor Isnaji Alvarez, the chief negotiator, in Sulu around 9:30 p.m., Goltiao said.

Amilbajar said a P2-million “board and lodging fee” was paid in exchange for his freedom.

“These funds came from the two negotiators. These funds are their campaign funds,” Amilbajar said.

Alvarez, who is running for governor of the ARMM in the regional elections in August, said in a telephone interview that the kidnappers told him Valderama was being set free as a “gift.”

The freed hostage told Alvarez that his two colleagues and Professor Octavio Dinampo remained with the kidnappers and were unharmed.

The kidnappers, described as members of the Abu Sayyaf group that has been blamed for the worst terrorist attacks in the Philippines, were understood to have demanded up to P20 million ($454,000) in ransom.

Amilbajar told reporters that Valderama would be taken to a military camp here for a debriefing.

“He looked okay, but he would be given a [medical] check-up,” the official said.

Goltiao said a “middleman” fetched Valderama at an undisclosed location before he was brought to Alvarez’s residence.

Valderama is now under the protective custody of the Philippine National Police and will be presented to Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno on Friday, said Goltiao.

’Military agent’

The police chief of Sulu said earlier Thursday that a known “military agent” led Drilon, her two cameramen and Dinampo to their kidnappers on Sunday.

Senior Supt. Julasirim Kasim said Marama Hashim, the man hired by Drilon et al. to drive for them in Maimbung, Sulu, on the day of their disappearance, claimed that a certain Juamil Biyaw was the “missing link” to knowing who was behind the kidnapping.

Biyaw, a resident of Barangay Sandah in Patikul town, is known in Sulu as a military agent, Kasim said.

Kasim’s revelation was a surprise twist to the abduction case. Government, military and police officials had been saying all along that the kidnappers of Drilon et al. were Abu Sayyaf bandits.

But in a separate interview on the phone with the Philippine Daily Inquirer (parent company of INQUIRER.net) in Manila, Goltiao was incredulous.

“What? A military asset?” Goltiao said, adding that he and his men had spoken with Hashim. “Wala yun (There is no such thing). He didn’t mention anything like that.”

Goltiao said that from what the police had gathered from Hashim, the latter was hired to drive for Drilon et al. on Sunday and that when they reached the Ajid River, the group got off the vehicle and proceeded on foot.

Hashim waited for Drilon et al. from noon to 4 p.m. but they did not return, Goltiao said.

Hashim was earlier reported to have been kidnapped along with the four hostages. Hashim was released and taken into police custody on Wednesday night.

Quoting Hashim, Kasim said Biyaw was with Drilon and the others when they went to Maimbung on Sunday in the course of their Sulu coverage.

Biyaw ordered Hashim to stop somewhere in Barangay Labbah at around noon, Kasim said.

“The passengers, including Madame Ces, thought nasira ang sasakyan (the pickup had broken down),” Kasim said, quoting from Hashim’s account.

“All the passengers casually alighted and this Biyaw guy invited the four to join him in a walk toward Mount Mabusing (the forested interior of Labbah). So there was no scuffle. Madame Ces and the rest walked casually,” Kasim said.

Surprised, frightened

Hashim was reportedly surprised when the five left him on the highway.

“But he waited until 4 p.m., and this Biyaw returned alone and instructed the driver to leave the place. The driver, apparently disturbed, followed the instruction,” Kasim said.

He said Hashim was apparently frightened and made himself scarce: “Sa takot ng driver, hindi nga ito agad nagpakita.”

“Pero nakuha rin natin siya (But we got him), and he is now in our custody. Right now, we are looking for this Biyaw and we are checking further his background and how close he is with the military as he is being reported as an agent,” Kasim said.

Maimbung Mayor Najib Maldisa said Biyaw “is closely associated with some Marines in the brigade.”

On the other hand, Abdulwahid Basaluddin, chair of the Anak Sug Professionals in Sulu, said Biyaw was a former member of the Moro National Liberation Front and a “conflict mediator like [Dinampo], although Biyaw has more access to the military than Dinampo.”

Maldisa told the Inquirer that he, too, was confused by the turn of events: “Ako naguguluhan na sa takbo ng sitwasyon.”

“Thursday, it was the Abu Sayyaf. Now, it’s not. But it’s scary, with a military agent,” he said.

Maldisa said the police should immediately take custody of Biyaw “because he is the key to knowing who is behind the abduction.”

‘Mere speculation’

Contacted for comment, Lt. Col. Ernesto Torres, the military spokesperson, described the information on the purported military agent as a “mere speculation and reckless allegation” that tended to muddle an “already complicated situation.”

“The military is supporting the current efforts being carried out to locate and secure Ms Ces Drilon and her crew,” Torres said in a text message.

Like Torres, Lt. Gen. Nelson Allaga, chief of the Western Mindanao Command, dismissed the information as “pure speculation.”

“We assure everyone that efforts are ongoing for the safe recovery of the ABS-CBN crew, and any speculation will certainly jeopardize these efforts,” Allaga said.

He said he would not comment further “so as not to confuse everyone.”

But Allaga disclosed that Goltiao and Brig. Gen. Juancho Sabban, chief of Task Force Comet, were to travel to Sulu Thursday afternoon to supervise a military operation to secure the captives.

Asked to explain the military operation, Allaga quickly said: “It will have nothing to do with artillery fire or heavy troops. Negotiation is also a form of military operation.”

Other groups’ involvement

Kasim said he himself was “a bit confused” by the varying information that police had been receiving lately.

“[Hashim] gave information that runs counter to what our Maimbung police earlier supplied,” he said.

But he added that police were now looking into the involvement of groups other than the Abu Sayyaf in the kidnapping.

“I will not say anything at this moment. I will just let Hashim’s affidavit speak for what is the latest development,” Kasim said.

Maldisa said that if Drilon et al. “are not being held by the Abu Sayyaf, and all the MNLF members here have no idea about their disappearance, then another group pulled off the kidnapping.”

The mayor said he had been doing his own investigation among the MNLF commanders. “But all of them say they know nothing. Some, especially those in the hinterlands, were even surprised to know there was a kidnapping,” he said.

‘Presumption’

Kasim explained how the Abu Sayyaf came into the picture: “It was my Maimbung police chief (Insp. Abdulsamad Mañalas) who said that, and I admit, it might have been a presumption because the incident took place where Gafur Jumdail’s group operates.”

But Mayor Maldisa said Mañalas had denied naming the purported kidnappers prior to confirmation by ABS-CBN executives.

“Buti na lang (It’s good) we did some of our homework. That’s why I was a bit hesitant to blame anyone, especially if I didn’t see them with my own eyes or received any information direct from these bandits,” he said.

Kasim also said the earlier report that the driver and the dispatcher of the pickup were also taken by the kidnappers and then released was inaccurate.

He said Biyaw had been wrongly reported by police as a dispatcher.

‘Shocked’

But Gafur Jumdail and Albader Parad, the Abu Sayyaf members tagged as the kidnappers, were “shocked” at reports of their supposed involvement, according to a former MNLF sub-commander now in the employ of a town mayor.

The source, who asked not to be named for security reasons, said that on the mayor’s instructions, he had dispatched emissaries to the camps of Parad and Jumdail in Indanan and Maimbung, respectively.

“When my people entered Parad’s camp, they found Parad and his group having coffee. Parad and his group were all shocked to learn that Drilon had been kidnapped,” the source said.

He said his men had even checked the inner bunkers to make sure that no one was being hidden inside.

At Jumdail’s camp situated between the barangays of Kulasi and Labbah, the emissaries also found nothing.

“And Jumdail and his group even laughed. They said the media had given them free exposure, and that they were now very popular in Sulu, and even the whole world. They also didn’t know that Ces Drilon had been kidnapped,” the source said.

‘Little misunderstanding’

Alvarez had earlier told reporters he had spoken with Drilon by telephone on Wednesday night.

“I informed her that there was a little misunderstanding on the expenses to be paid for their stay,” he said in an apparent reference to difficulties in the negotiations.

“Accommodation,” “board and lodging” or “expenses”—rather than “ransom”—are terms often used by kidnappers because these are more acceptable to negotiators.

Eugenio “Gabby” Lopez III, chair and chief executive of ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corp., Thursday reiterated that the network would not pay ransom for Drilon and her crew.

“Of course not. It would make life difficult for all of you [reporters]. We need prayers,” Lopez said on the sidelines of a stockholders meeting of Benpres Holdings Corp., the publicly listed investment arm of the Lopez family.

“We’re talking to her (Drilon) every day. She’s OK,” Lopez said.

ABS-CBN said Wednesday in a statement that it would abide by its policy of not paying ransoms, so as not to “embolden kidnap-for-ransom groups to abduct other journalists, putting more lives at risk.”

Talks in ‘critical stage’

Quoting a source, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that negotiations for the release of Drilon et al. had reached a “critical stage.”

“We know the hostages are all OK,” said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Talks for their safe release have reached a critical stage, with the ransom demand going up from P10 million to P20 million,” the source said.

Unconfirmed reports said the local guide may have suffered a “mild” stroke.

Police and military sources would not comment on a media report that the group was being held by a Malaysian Jemaah Islamiyah bombmaker wanted by the United States.

The Philippine Star newspaper named the Malaysian as Zulkifli bin Hir, who it said was holed up with local Abu Sayyaf militants Umbra Jumdail and Albader Parad.

The paper, quoting an unnamed military source, said the US-trained engineer was “the principal suspect in many bombing attacks in the Philippines, where he has been in hiding since August 2003 and training Islamic militants in handling explosive devices.”

Washington has offered a $5-million reward for the Malaysian’s capture.

Meanwhile, on the nearby island of Basilan, Muslim extremists kidnapped two Philippine Marines on Thursday and were demanding the release of detained Abu Sayyaf militant Sali Dungkal Alih in exchange, the military said.

Security forces arrested Alih in Basilan on May 6.

“They are offering us a concession — give us the liberty of Alih and then we will release the Marines,” said military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Edgardo Arevalo.

Arevalo said the government was sticking to its position of not giving in to such demands. With reports from Alcuin Papa and Elizabeth Sanchez-Lacson in Manila, Julie S. Alipala, Inquirer Mindanao Bureau; Thea Alberto, INQUIRER.net(PDI)

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