09/17/2008, 00.00
PHILIPPINES
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Abu Sayyaf behind kidnapping of volunteers in Mindanao

The two women were kidnapped by local fringe groups of the terrorist organization connected to al Qaeda and active in the southern Philippines. The kidnapping is said to be motivated by money, and not religious reasons. Negotiations are underway for the release of the hostages.

Basilan (AsiaNews) - "We have opened contacts with the kidnappers, but, at the moment, there is no official news about the condition of the two kidnapped volunteers", says Fr Angel Calvo, head of the Christian-Muslim Interreligious Movement for Solidarity and Peace. Fr Calvo is now following the developments in the kidnapping of Esperancita Hupida and Millet Mendoza.

The Spanish women, who run two different nongovernmental organizations in the area, were kidnapped last Monday by an armed group on the island of Basilan in the southern Philippines, a hotspot for the fundamentalist group Abu Sayyaf, linked to al Qaeda and responsible for killings and kidnappings in the past. "According to initial reconstructions", Fr Calvo tells AsiaNews, "it appears that the two volunteers were kidnapped by one or two gangs connected to Abu Sayyat; they are local fringe groups that often use kidnappings to earn money in order to finance their struggle".

Fr Calvo says that the local government and the military have begun negotiations with the kidnappers, but at the moment "there have been no concrete replies to the appeals". He does not exclude the possibility that the kidnappers could respond "within the next few hours" or at most "within a couple of days", in order to reach an agreement with government forces and proceed with the liberation of the volunteers.

"The aim of the kidnapping is extortion", Fr Angel Calvo continues, "and there is no religious or confessional reason behind it". In his opinion, the women found themselves "in the wrong place at the wrong time", and they were not even the original kidnapping targets. Since these are two foreign volunteers, from Europe, the kidnappers may have anticipated earning a larger ransom.

The Filipino military marines have stopped patrolling the area, for the sake of reaching a peaceful resolution in instead of forcing the hands of the kidnappers. "We want to guarantee the possibility of peaceful negotiations", commander Domingo Valdez tells a local newspaper, "and we are hopeful that the victims will be released". This hope is also shared by Fr Calvo, who says that he is "waiting to find out the real intentions" of the kidnappers within the next few hours. He emphasizes, finally, "the solidarity of the Muslim community", which "is asking that the sacred month of Ramadan be respected", and that there not be "further episodes of violence". Christians and Muslims, together, are asking that the volunteers "be released", and that the area may enjoy a "full and lasting peace".

Esperancita Cupida, 42, runs the local branch of the Nagdilaab Foundation, which operates humanitarian programs on behalf of the war-torn local population. Millet Mendoza works for the Tabang Mindanaw association.

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