AFP intensifies hunt for bandits

THE military poured more troops into areas where Abu Sayyaf bandits have been known to hide after the group threatened to behead three foreign hostages and a Filipina if they did not receive P300 million in ransom for each of the foreigners by April 25.

“President Aquino has directed acting Armed Forces of the Philippines chief [Lt. Gen.] Glorioso Miranda and Philippine National Police chief Ricardo Marquez to conduct appropriate military and law enforcement operations to effect the rescue of the hostages,” Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said in a statement Monday.

In a rare joint press briefing at the General Headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City, military and police spokesmen said rescue efforts intensified as the Abu Sayyaf deadline expired.

“Maximum efforts are being exerted by a joint AFP-PNP task group to effect the rescue of four hostages who were kidnaped in Samal Island last October 2015 after the ASG announced the possible beheading of one of its hostages. This follows intensified anti-ASG operations in Basilan and Sulu in recent weeks,” PNP spokesman Chief Supt. Wilben Mayor told reporters.

Local authorities have been told to cooperate with the joint task force to ensure the safety of civilians in the area, he added. 

Mayor said some  400 Abu Sayyaf armed men are  involved in the kidnapping of Canadians John Ridsdel and Robert Hall, Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad, and Hall’s Filipina girlfriend Marites Flor.

Armed men seized the four on Sept. 21, 2015 at the Ocean View Samal Resort on Samal Island.

The kidnappers originally demanded a ransom of P1 billion for each of the three foreigners, but later lowered this to P300 million each.

Four months after the abduction, the kidnappers released a one-and-a-half-minute video showing an Abu Sayyaf bandit brandishing a machete above the necks of Canadians Ridsdel and Hall.

Ridsdel appealed to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Canadian people to meet the kidnappers’ demands to prevent their execution.

At Monday’s briefing, military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said he could not divulge details of the ongoing operations.

“We cannot divulge [that] at the moment in the interest of the safety of the victims. The intensified operations are ongoing, and we have forces on the ground currently pursuing these bandits,” he said.

But a senior military officer who spoke on condition of anonymity said Miranda wanted them “to get more heads of the terrorists” who threatened to behead the hostages.

Western Mindanao Command spokesman Maj. Filemon Tan confirmed that the acting AFP chief was in Sulu.

“They landed in Zamboanga City on Saturday but few to Sulu this morning,” Tan said Monday in a phone interview.

The ASG is said to be holding several local and foreign hostages in Sulu as well as Basilan.

Just recently, 18 soldiers were killed in clashes with the Abu Sayyaf in Tipo-Tipo town. Thirty of the bandits also died in the series of encounters, the military said.

Tan said the national leadership would decide on an Indonesian request to stage joint border patrols to stop pirates from seizing more hostages.

 Indonesia has said it would set up a crisis center, headed by President Joko Widodo, to handle security situations involving its citizens overseas, following recent abductions of Indonesian sailors in Philippine waters.

 The center will include senior ministers and military and police chiefs and will be designed to respond quickly to situations that could have a “strategic impact,” Indonesia Chief Security Minister Luhut Pandjaitan said.

Since coming to power in 2014, Widodo has placed maritime security for the Indonesian archipelago high on his government’s agenda.

 Indonesia has voiced fears that a surge in piracy in the waters between Indonesia and the Philippines could reach Somalian levels and has told vessels to avoid danger areas.

 Up to 18 Indonesians and Malaysians have been kidnapped in three attacks in recent weeks on tugboats in Philippine waters by groups suspected of ties to the Abu Sayyaf.

Abu Sayyaf, which has posted videos on social media pledging allegiance to Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, has demanded P50 million to free the hostages, but the Indonesian government has said it does not intend to pay the ransom. 

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