Abducted ICRC staff in constant touch with Manila chief

Tauxe said Filipino national Mary Jean Lacaba, an engineer and  Eugenio Vagni, an Italian – both water and habitat specialists; and Swiss national Andreas Notter, heaf of the ICRC office in Zamboanga, claimed to be in good health. “From what we understand, they are being held together. It’s always good to hear their voices and, of course, we remain concerned for their safety and hope they will be back with their loved ones soon.”

The ICRC report did not say if the ICRC staff identified the group that abducted them or if the kidnappers spoke with Tauxe.

But Tauxe dismissed as rumors reports allegedly circulating in the media that kidnappers have opened talks for negotiations and have demanded a P5 million ransom.

“Regarding the rumours in the media, they are just that: rumours. As far as I am aware, they are false rumours. We have not had any direct contact with the people who are holding Mary-Jean, Eugenio and Andreas,” Tauxe said.

But he also said that “the ICRC cannot just disregard rumours like this. We are doing our best to check on their possible accuracy through a range of contacts,” he said, adding, “this is obviously a high-profile case and there is a lot of media attention surrounding it. Sometimes, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction. What we know for sure is that the three are alive, and we want their safe return. I am not in a position to comment further as I do not want to jeopardize our colleagues’ safety, nor do I want to speculate on rumours. That simply wouldn’t be helpful.”

Tauxe expressed concern about the effect of the rumors on the families of their kidnapped colleagues.

“In these times of instantaneous worldwide communication, we are very concerned about the effect that rumours, conveyed by media, may have on the families of our kidnapped colleagues. Because of the time difference, and the difficulty for the families living in other parts of the world to understand aspects of the incident relating specifically to the Philippines, our colleagues at Geneva headquarters are doing their best to protect the families from the incredible stress that rumours can unleash. Here in the Philippines we are trying to do the same thing for the family of our Filipina colleague,” he said.

Tauxe said the ICRC, which has been working in the Philippines since 1982, will continue its assistance and protection activities in the conflict-affected areas. 

Their kidnapped colleagues went to Sulu on January 13 and were returning to Zamboanga on January 15, after visiting the provincial jail, when abducted.

Tauxe said Lacaba and Vagni are “water and habitat specialists for the ICRC and were working on a water and sanitation project at the Jolo provincial jail when they were snatched along with (Notter).”

He said the expertise and experience of Lacaba and Vagni “enable the ICRC to provide the right kind of help to people in need, whether in evacuation areas or in detention centers.”

“We sincerely hope that Mary-Jean, Eugenio and Andreas will be returned to us soon so that they can continue helping the conflict-affected population in the southern Philippines,” he said.

Because of the abduction,  “we are unable to carry out our water and sanitation project at the Jolo provincial jail, but the rest of our activities continue,” he said.

Tauxe explained that the ICRC carries out range of activities, including visits to detainees to ensure they are treated well and have access to water and sanitation facilities. 

“We also continue to respond to the needs of people who remain displaced in significant numbers in central Mindanao. This work is done in cooperation with the Philippine National Red Cross Society, whose dedicated volunteers distribute items such as rice, soap and cooking oil, and follow up on the population's needs. We also provide support for medical facilities that are working to treat those who have been injured or made sick as a direct or indirect result of the fighting,” he said.

He said the ICRC ensures that the displaced have access to safe drinking water and sanitation facilities because “when people have clean water to drink and proper toilets, it greatly decreases the chances of disease spreading.”

The military was immediately ordered to “track down the criminal elements and ensure the safe return of the captives,” Press Secretary Jesus Dureza said on January 15.

Dureza said the  Joint Task Force Comet headed by Brigadier General Juancho Sabban “has been tasked to undertake appropriate action on the ground.”

Dureza also reiterated the call of authorities to all visitors in Sulu, “whether they be locals or foreigners, to coordinate their movements to them to ensure their safety.”

“In the light of this recent incident, the authorities are reiterating their call on all elements, whether locals or foreigner, who visit these areas to coordinate with government ground forces so adequate measures are done on their security and safety,” the Office of the Press Secretary quoted Dureza as saying.

“Certain measures are also being pursued in light of the fact that the ICRC is an international agency that adheres to neutrality,” he said.  (MindaNews)