A new Somalia?
The release last Sunday of 10 Indonesian seafarers held hostage by the Abu Sayyaf bandit group was good news, but the kind that underlined the bad: Four more Indonesians remain in captivity, at least seven other foreigners have been abducted, and it is likely that the release was facilitated by the payment of ransom.
This possibility has been denied officially in two countries.
“The release was conducted without paying a ransom, based on negotiations and cooperation between the TNI [the Indonesian military] and the Philippine military,” retired general Kivlan Zein, the Indonesian negotiator, told Indonesian media.
Armed Forces of the Philippines officials also denied that any ransom had been paid to the notorious kidnap group.
The Indonesians were brought to the house of the Sulu governor on Sunday, and returned by private plane to a military base in Jakarta by early Monday.
“Our prayers have been answered,” the brother of one of the hostages told Agence France-Presse. “A few days ago when the kidnappers beheaded a hostage we were very worried, but now we heard he is safe we feel so blessed.”
But reports persist that money did in fact change hands. In the first place, it is highly unusual for Abu Sayyaf hostages to regain freedom without ransom payments. There have been a few genuine escapes, and unrelenting military pressure has been proven to loosen the group’s grip on some of its captives. But by and large, releases are triggered by ransom payments.
Secondly, sources have said that ransom was paid. One source told the Inquirer that a P50-million ransom was paid to the kidnappers. “They were supposed to be freed between Friday and Saturday somewhere in Luuk town [instead of Sunday],” the source said.
Another source asserted that the shipping company that employed the Indonesians, Patria Maritime Lines, paid the P50 million that the kidnappers were demanding.
Some may argue that paying up is the only effective way to save hostages; military action in the dense terrain of Basilan and Sulu is difficult, and not a guarantee of success. Negotiation is even more complicated, with an unenviable track record.
Sorry experience tells us it isn’t only private parties who end up paying ransom; some governments have been known to look the other way or even actively facilitate ransom payments to effect the release of their citizens.
But the grimmer reality is that ransom payments tighten the Abu Sayyaf hold on the areas it controls. Mayor Hussin Amin of Jolo, Sulu, said he did not know if ransom was paid for the 10 Indonesian hostages. But he added words of caution: “If this big release came in exchange for money, those who paid are supporting the Abu Sayyaf.”
And: “This money will be used to buy more firearms and will be utilized as mobilization funds by these criminals.”
The problem becomes worse when considered in view of the new reputation that part of southern Philippines is gaining: A possible “new Somalia,” treacherous waters where unsuspecting travellers and sailors are abducted at gunpoint and held for ransom.
Tomorrow, diplomats and military officials from the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia will meet to discuss the possibility of conducting joint naval patrols in the area. That is an important next step, to prevent possibility from becoming reality.
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