AMMONNEWS - Abu Sayyaf militants have kidnapped a three-man news team of the Dubai-based Al Arabiya television network in Sulu, security officials bared yesterday.
Jordanian journalist Baker Atyani and his two Filipino cameramen Ramelito Vela and Roland Letrico were initially reported as missing by local police following their failure to return to their hotel in Jolo on Tuesday.
Ground security sources, however, revealed the three are now being held by the group of Yasser Igasan, spiritual leader and overall leader of the Abu Sayyaf in the troubled island province.
Sulu is a known stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf, who were reported to be also holding six foreign nationals, including a Swede and a Dutch, who were forcibly taken by armed men in Tawi-Tawi early this year.
There were reports the kidnappers are now demanding P50 million in ransom for the Jordanian journalist and his Filipino crew.
On June 10, he flew to Zamboanga City where he had an initial interview with a certain Uztad Abdul Baki Abubakar and a certain Morehi Ibrahim.
The following day, Atyani, the bureau chief of Al Arabiya, and his two Filipino cameramen flew to Sulu and interviewed Gov. Abu Sakur Tan and Jolo Mayor Hussein Amin.
On June 12, the three went out of their hotel at about 5:45 a.m. and headed for the jungle to do a pre-arranged interview with Igasan.
When the group failed to return, the owner of the hotel reported them to the local police as missing.
Sulu Provincial Police Office (SPPO) director Senior Superintendent Antonio Freyra said Tan initially met the three-man television crew as he was scheduled to leave on board the same commercial plane the victims took.
Tan reportedly advised the television crew to secure escorts.
“Gov. Tan in fact before he left told them to seek escorts as it has been the practice here in Jolo, especially for foreign visitors,” Freyra said.
Freyra said the television crew even coordinated with Mayor Amin to cover the Independence Day celebration last Tuesday in the town.
The trio were last monitored after they left their hostel Tuesday and took a white colored multicab headed in an unknown direction.
“We don’t know if he has been kidnapped. We don’t know their objective here,” Amin said. “He’s been declared missing for now.”
Freyra said they could not even declare the victims as “missing” because of the possibility that the television crew could have rendezvoused with some “personalities,” which could be the reason why they refused police or military escorts.
“There were efforts to contact them through their mobile phones but they cannot be reached. They might have intentionally closed their phones so they cannot be located,” Freyra said.
This prompted them to alert all the police units in the province to monitor the possible presence of the foreign-based television crew, according to Freyra.
Authorities were trying to verify unconfirmed reports that Atyani may have traveled to Jolo’s mountainous jungles to seek an interview with Abu Sayyaf and some of their foreign hostages as part of a TV documentary on the southern Philippines, a military intelligence official revealed.
The Abu Sayyaf are holding two Europeans and a Japanese. There are conflicting reports whether an Indian hostage had died in captivity.
Atyani, a 43-year-old Jordanian based in Jakarta, Indonesia, was working for the Arabic satellite channel Middle East Broadcasting Corp. in June 2001 when he met Osama bin Laden and his aides in Afghanistan and said they told him that the coming weeks would hold “important surprises that will target American and Israeli interests in the world.”
He later moved to Al-Arabiya TV in Dubai as its Asia bureau chief.
Abu Sayyaf militants have launched more attacks in the last four years despite US backed offensives on Jolo and neighboring islands. Authorities have failed to cut off a flow of money, food and weapons to the terrorists, the military said in a recent report.
The Abu Sayyaf is a more radical offshoot of a Muslim rebellion that has been raging in Mindanao for decades. The violence is fueled by abject poverty, corruption and proliferation of weapons.
As this developed, the US updated its travel warning to the Philippines yesterday, citing continuing risks to safety and security due to terrorism in southern Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago.
“The Department of State warns US citizens of the risks of travel to the Philippines, in particular to the Sulu archipelago and the island of Mindanao,” the travel warning said.
The latest bulletin replaced its earlier the travel warning on Jan. 5, 2012 and reflects continuing threats in those areas due to terrorist and insurgent activities.
“US citizens should defer non-essential travel to the Sulu archipelago, due to the high threat of kidnapping of international travelers and violence linked to insurgency and terrorism there,” it said.
The State Department urged US nationals to exercise extreme caution if traveling to Mindanao.
Throughout Mindanao, the travel warning said criminal groups have clashed sporadically with Philippine government forces, particularly in rural areas, and terrorist groups have kidnapped international travelers and carried out bombings that have resulted in injuries and deaths.
In the travel warning, the State Department said “security and safety conditions in the urban centers of Davao City, General Santos City, and Cagayan de Oro City in Mindanao are generally more controlled.”
“Nevertheless, official US government visitors and embassy employees must receive special authorization from the embassy to travel to any location in Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago, including these urban centers,” it said.
The travel warning also cited kidnap-for-ransom gangs that operate in the Philippines and have targeted foreigners, including Filipino-Americans.
“Such gangs are especially active in the Sulu archipelago, and a number of foreigners have been kidnapped there in recent years,” it said.