PH defense chief Lorenzana: Abu Sayyaf still holding 25 hostages

SINGAPORE – The Philippine defense chief said on Monday, January 23, that 25 hostages are still being held by the Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines but urged that no ransom be paid for their release.

Delfin Lorenzana also told a security forum in Singapore that President Rodrigo Duterte has been under pressure to declare martial law in at least three southern islands where group operates, but he did not think there was a need.

The defense secretary said the companies which employed two recently freed Indonesians had paid a ransom of 20 million pesos ($400,000).

He did not identify the captives but the Philippine military said two Indonesian hostages were freed last month by the Abu Sayyaf, which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS) group.

The two were among 7 crew seized from a tugboat off the southern Philippines in June.

Security analysts had said the ransom was paid for the release by the Abu Sayyaf last year of a Norwegian hostage, although the Philippine and Norwegian governments denied it.

Lorenzana told the Fullerton Forum organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies that 25 kidnap victims are still being kept on the southern island of Jolo.

Jolo is a stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf, which is known to behead its victims if ransoms are not paid. The group decapitated a Malaysian in 2015 year and two Canadians last year.

Lorenzana said the army's chief difficult in hunting militants was the presence of civilians in communities where they operate, who also benefit from the ransom money.

"It seems that the whole of the community are into it, not everybody but a major part of the community are benefitting from the ransom," he said.

The government is trying to "convince the companies and the families not to pay ransom because everytime they pay ransom they make the kidnappers stronger," he said.

"They have more money to distribute to the communities and they have more money to procure all the gadgets that they need – cellphones, firearms and even materials to manufacture improvised explosive devices."

Lorenzana said the government's strategy against militants was a "holistic approach" – introducing development projects and providing "incentives for the people to go fishing rather than go kidnapping".

He said many Filipinos wanted the president to declare martial law over South Tawi Tawi, Jolo and Basilan islands.

But this would be "very controversial" and Duterte was not considering the idea.  –