THE suspected Iraqi insurgents have demanded the release of Abu Ghraib prisoners and a huge ransom in exchange for the freedom of an American and a Filipino taken hostage last week in Baghdad, Philippine officials said Tuesday.
Gunmen on November 1 seized the Filipino accountant Robert Tarongoy, an unidentified American, a Nepalese and three Iraqis from the compound of a Saudi-based company that caters food to American troops. Two of the Iraqi hostages and the Nepalese have been freed.
Labor Secretary Patricia Sto. Tomas said Tarongoy’s kidnappers have contacted his employer, the Saudi Arabian Trading and Construction Co. (Satco), and listed their demands for the release of the captives.
She declined to say what the demands were, but added that negotiations between the company and the abductors were under way.
Two Philippine officials dealing with the crisis said the kidnappers were demanding a ransom of at least $12 million and the release of at least four prisoners from Abu Ghraib, the prison where US military guards were photographed beating and sexually humiliating Iraqi detainees.
“There is a group that called the company with some demands. Negotiations are going on through Satco,” Sto. Tomas told The Associated Press, referring to the hostages’ employer.
In a separate interview with ABS-CBN television, she said Philippine officials were looking for ways to directly contact the abductors and possible intermediaries, but added that the government was still pinning its hope of saving Tarongoy on the talks between his employer and the kidnappers.
“Possible mediators are being sorted out one by one, but our best lead is still the talks involving his employer,” Sto. Tomas told ABS-CBN.
She did not say if the government intended to negotiate with the kidnappers or just plead for Tarongoy’s release. Philippine diplomats in Baghdad were keeping the interim Iraqi government aware of developments, she said.
US officials have asked the Philippine government not to grant any concessions to the kidnappers. Washington strongly criticized President Arroyo’s decision in July to withdraw a small peacekeeping team from Iraq to secure the release of the kidnapped truck driver Angelo dela Cruz.
Sto. Tomas said Philippine officials were also talking to possible intermediaries who could bring them to the kidnappers of another Filipino, Angelito Nayan, who was abducted along with two other UN election workers in Afghanistan on October 28.
Spokesmen for the purported kidnappers, who are demanding the release of Taliban prisoners and the withdrawal of British and UN troops from their country, have said negotiations between their group and Afghan officials began Sunday.
But the Afghan government indicated unwillingness on Tuesday to meet the demands of a militant group holding the three UN workers, despite a threat to kill one of the hostages if an afternoon deadline was not met.
“We know about their ultimatum and our response is that we hope they free the hostages on the basis of the decree of the ulema and appeals from Afghans and the international community,” said Defense Ministry spokesman Zaher Azimi, when asked if the government would meet the demands.
The Jaish-e Muslimeen (Army of Muslims) said earlier it was giving the government until 3 p.m. (6:30 a.m. Wednesday in Manila) to respond to its demand for the freeing of 26 Taliban members as part of a deal to release Nayan, Annetta Flanigan from Northern Ireland and Shqipe Hebibi from Kosovo.
Last week, Afghanistan’s council of clerics, or ulema, said hostage-taking was un-Islamic and demanded the unconditional release of the workers who were abducted in Kabul on October 28.
The families of the Filipino hostages have repeatedly pleaded for their release in the spirit of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, saying the two men have nothing to do with the conflicts in the two countries.
Grace Nayan, sister of Angelito, asked the abductors to free his brother and the two other UN workers.
“My family and I would like to reiterate our appeal to my brother’s abductors to please spare his life and let him return to the Philippines. The Filipino people wish nothing but the best for the people of Afghanistan. We have never been involved in your internal conflicts. In fact, our government does not even have an embassy or consulate in your country,” Grace said.
In a statement the Nayan family said they are receiving regular updates from the Department of Foreign Affairs and the UN on the progress of talks in Afghanistan.
— With Jonathan Vicente, AP