[UPDATED] MANILA, Philippines – Regional government officials in Western Mindanao are confident the abductors of 2 foreign tourists are still in Tawi-Tawi, even as local government officials are stepping up efforts to trace the whereabouts of the captives.
Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) officer-in-charge Governor Mujiv Hataman admitted that the transfer of the captives — Dutch Ewold Horn, 52, and Swiss Lorenzo Vinciguerra, 47 — to neighboring Sulu island would be a “major concern” for government agencies.
Sulu has been known to be a bailiwick of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), a loosely organized local terror group with links to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist network. It is being blamed for a series of kidnappings in the past, including those involving foreigners.
“Initially, it is unlikely that the ASG could be behind this incident since the group is not known to be operating in Tawi-Tawi,” Hataman told Rappler. “But we are looking into all possibilities.”
Hataman, along with Tawi-Tawi Gov Sadikul Sahali and regional police chief Director Felicisimo Khu, went to Panglima Sugala town on Thursday, February 2, to discuss strategies on how to deal with the latest crisis. They were set to meet Ivan Sarenas, Filipino guide and third captive, who managed to escape the abductors in Languyan town Wednesday night.
Malacañang, in a press statement, condemned the abduction. “National and local governments, as well as all agencies concerned, are working to ensure the resolution of the situation, the recovery and release of the men who remain in the hands of their captors, and the bringing to justice of the lawless elements involved.”
“We strongly advise that tourists check with our Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), as well as their own embassies, regarding advisories on conditions that may affect their travel and other arrangements while visiting the country,” the statement said.
In a phone interview with Rappler, DFA spokesperson Raul Hernandez said the Philippine government has informed the concerned embassies regarding these incidents. The government has also linked them with Tawi-Tawi’s Sahali for updates, he said.
Hernandez said the government is getting more updates from the Philippine National Police.
The DFA spokesperson declined to comment on the United Kingdom’s travel warning against the Philippines amid the kidnapping incidents. Hernandez said he has yet to see the actual warning.
Hataman said that Sarenas’ testimonies will be important for pursuing government troops, to determine the direction where the abductors are taking their hostages. They also need to find out the identities of the group’s members. He added that President Benigno Aquino III has instructed him to exert all efforts to safely free the hostages.
“There are tracking systems in place. But whatever information Ivan can share will be very vital,” Hataman said.
Accordingly, the police is taking “the lead role in the investigation and pursuit” of the abductors.
“It is a law-enforcement operation so the police is leading it,” Lt Col Randy Cabangbang of the military’s Western Mindanao Command (WMC) said. “Our troops will be supporting them in terms of personnel and transportation.”
Aside from the provincial police, the military’s Marine Battalion Landing Team-4 and the Tactical Operations Group (TOG) of the Philippine Air Force have been tapped to assist in the efforts to free the foreigners.
According to Alain Pascua, vice president of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, Sarenas is editor-in-chief and photographer of the Philippines Yearbook. He also takes photographs for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Greenpeace, Conservational International, National Geographics Productions, and the BBC, according to Pascua.
Sarenas is also the official photographer of Birdwatching in the Philippines volumes 1 and 2 for the Department of Tourism.
Sarenas’ Facebook account was bombarded with messages from friends, who expressed concern for his safety, as well as relief that he is now safe.
“Thankful for the safety of Ivan Sarenas! Praying for the 2 other birdwatchers,” a message posted by artist and former broadcaster, Robert Alejandro read. – Rappler.com
With reports from Paterno Esmaquel II