Manila (AsiaNews) – “We've asked our political and military people on the ground to gather information and help for the safe release of the Red Cross team,” said Mohaqher Iqbal, a senior leader with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), an Islamic rebel group that has been fighting for an independent Muslim state on Mindanao Island. The largest rebel group in the area, it has condemned the abduction.
Nothing is however known about the kidnappers. “We're not really sure whether the Abu Sayyaf was behind the kidnapping because no group has come forward to claim responsibility for the abduction,” said Marine Lieutenant-General Nelson Allaga, military commander in the Western Mindanao area.
Equally in the dark, “we don't know what group was behind the kidnapping,” Roland Bigler, a Red Cross spokesman, said.
Still, the investigation and the search for the three Red Cross workers are intensifying, especially further inland, around the city Patikul, an Abu sayyaf stronghold.
According to Jolo police, Albader Parad, a top Abu Sayyaf commander, led the group of kidnappers.
At the same time no one has excluded the involvement of a man working at prison the three humanitarian workers had just visited before their abduction.
“We're still validating information a former jail guard was in cahoots with the gunmen,” Lieutenant-General Allaga said.
The suspect is believed to have been involved in the escape of 12 inmates from the prison on Tuesday.
For some observers the kidnapping is linked to the possibility of renewed peace talks between the MILF and the government. The affair would thus be an attempt to stop the resumption of negotiations.
“We will go to Malaysia to talk with facilitators who will formally inform the MILF (about the resumption of talks),” Rafael Seguis, an undersecretary at the foreign ministry and head of the government's new peace panel talking with Muslim rebels, said on Wednesday, the day before the abduction.
Malaysia is acting as mediator between the two sides.
“We still have to see what the other side would offer to restart the talks. We're open to negotiations,” the rebels' chief negotiator Mohaqher Iqbal said after the Filipino government made its announcement.
Filipino sources told AsiaNews that the abduction should not be seen in political or religious terms.
“It seems more the manifestation of a culture of lawlessness that is widespread in the Sulu Islands and Basilan,” a local leader said. “As far as we know anything, there is nothing ideological about it. It is more likely a group of misfits trying to get ransom money. It could be the same group that kidnapped a journalist and her crew in Sulu last June. Abu Sayyaf was mentioned then, and then things turned out to be different. Eventually, the journalist was freed after a ransom was paid.”
Doubts about the possible involvement of al-Qaeda-linked groups have been raised for other reasons. Abu Sayyaf has had heavy losses as a result of the army’s counteroffensive; in 2007 it had about a thousand fighters; now it is thought to have only 350.
“The problem though is that the area of the kidnapping is immersed in the jungle,” the source told the AsiaNews. “The kidnappers can rely on its remoteness. In addition, we must take into account the fact that in a predominantly Muslim area like Jolo, people feel closer to their own community and are not keen on co-operating with the [Filipino] army.”