ZAMBOANGA CITY: Police forces in southern Philippines have launched an operation to rescue two German hostages being held by the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) after the terrorist group threatened to behead one of the captives, officials said.
The Abu Sayyaf is holding German yachtmen Stefan Viktor Okonek, 71, and Herike Diesen, 55, who were abducted at sea on April 25 while en route to Sabah in Malaysia from a holiday on Palawan Island in western Philippines.
“There is an operation to track down the Abu Sayyaf holding the German hostages.
We cannot say anything more, but the government is doing all it can to secure safely the hostages and other kidnapped victims being held by the Abu Sayyaf. This operation has been going on,” Sr. Supt. Abraham Orbita told The Manila Times.
The militants demanded P250 million in ransom ($5.6 million) from Germany and for Berlin to cease all support to US air strikes against Islamic State or IS in Iraq and Syria. The Abu Sayyaf and another rebel group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighter, earlier pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State.
A source from the police intelligence community, however, said backdoor negotiations are underway for the safe release of the two Germans.
“A representative from the German Embassy had made contact with the ASG.
There’s now an ongoing negotiation for the release of the two Germans,” the source, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak on the matter, said.
The source added that the German negotiators gave P20 million as initial payment for the release of the two hostages but neither the police nor military would confirm this.
The Times tried but failed to get a statement from the German Embassy.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the government will not negotiate with the ASG, which he described as a “criminal” gang seeking to cash in on its self-proclaimed allegiance to the IS.
“We do not negotiate with terrorists,” Gazmin told reporters on Thursday.
Germany also insisted it would not withdraw support for US action against the jihadists in Iraq and Syria despite the ultimatum.
Gazmin confirmed that the Abu Sayyaf abducted a German man and woman at sea earlier this year.
“What the Abu Sayyaf is doing is like propaganda, so that the government will give in to their demands. We will not be intimidated by these gestures and actions,” he said in a separate radio interview, adding that the group was weakened and confined to small areas.
“They saw what the ISIS [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] has been doing, so they
used that to increase the ransom,” he said.
President Benigno Aquino, who is on a visit to the United States, said the Philippines’ struggle against domestic Muslim extremists like the Abu Sayyaf was similar to the global fight against the IS jihadists.
In a media interview, transcripts of which were released also on Thursday by Malacañang, Aquino said these local groups could not be assumed to be part of the Islamic State.
He added that his Foreign Affairs secretary will discuss with US State Department officials what kind of help they can provide to the American-led global fight against the jihadist movement.
“Of course, we want to do something that is doable and within our capabilities without posing undue risks,” said Aquino. whose country is a close US ally.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said it has not communicated with the German Embassy and denied knowledge on whether Berlin’s diplomatic mission is cooperating with the PNP or the military.
“This is basically a law enforcement matter and we defer to our law enforcement agencies,” Charles Jose, Foreign Affairs spokesperson, said in a text message.
Philippine National Police (PNP) spokesman Chief Supt. Reuben Theodore Sindac and Chief Supt. Agrimero Cruz Jr., chief of the PNP Task Force Sulu, said they are verifying a photograph released by the Abu Sayyaf on Wednesday showing the two captives surrounded by masked men.
“What we need is hard evidence,” Cruz also told The Manila Times.
The terrorist group has set October 10 as the deadline for Germany to comply with its demands, contained in a letter released by Abu Rami, a copy of which was posted on the websites worldanalysis.net and SITE Intelligence.
The Western Mindanao Command based in Zamboanga City also did not issue any statement on the Abu Sayyaf threat to kill one German captive or the sudden spike of support by local Muslims to IS.
But Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, a military spokesman, maintained that there is no ISIS in the Philippines.
“Wala dito ang ISIS, meron dito ang mga sympathizers na sumama sa bandwagon upang makilala sila [There is no ISIS here but there are sympathizers who joined the bandwagon so as to generate attention),” he said.
The Abu Sayyaf is still holding several foreigners and Filipinos kidnapped in southern Philippines. Among them are two European wildlife photographers Ewold Horn, 52, from Holland, and Lorenzo Vinciguerre, 47, from Switzerland, who were taken captive in the coastal village of Parangan in Panglima Sugala town in southern Tawi-Tawi province two years ago.
In Basilan, Mayor Joel Maturan, of Ungkaya Pukan town, said in a television interview that young Muslims are being recruited in the province to join IS also known as ISIS or Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
WITH BERNICE CAMILLE BAUZON