09/19/2008, 00.00
PHILIPPINES
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Mindanao, fate of kidnapped volunteers wrapped in mystery

Fr Angel Calvo asks for "contact with the kidnappers", and proof that the women "are still alive". No news from the kidnappers, whose identity remains uncertain. Clashes continue between the MILF and the army, while the situation worsens for the refugees, who face famine.

Manila (AsiaNews) - "We are asking for contact with the kidnappers, we want certain proof of the fact that the two volunteers are still alive and are doing well". This is the appeal issued to AsiaNews by Fr Angel Calvo, head of the Interreligious Movement for Solidarity and Peace, who expresses his hopes for "certain proof" of the health of Esperancita Hupita, 42, activities director for the Nagdilaab Foundation - an association that runs humanitarian programs on behalf of the war-torn local people - and Millet Mendoza, who works with the NGO Tabang Mindanaw.

"At the moment, we have received no sign from the kidnappers", continues Fr Calvo, president of the Nagdilaab Foundation, "in spite of the fact that we have many friends in the area where the kidnapping took place". The priest confirms that "there is no sure information" about the hiding place chosen by the kidnappers and by any possible movements of the group. He nonetheless expresses "optimism" that the affair could be resolved "soon, and in a positive manner". "We have heard news from the police that initial contacts have taken place, but we have seen no sign of these here in the area". "In spite of everything", Fr Calvo says, "we continue to keep the channels of communication open, and above all we hope that the kidnapping will end positively".

The women, who are Spanish, were kidnapped on Monday, September 15, by an armed group on the island of Basilan in the southern Philippines, a hotspot for the fundamentalist group Abu Sayyaf, connected to al Qaeda and responsible for kidnappings and killings in the past. The first rumors attributed the kidnapping to local fringe groups of the fundamentalist organization, but these could instead be gangs of criminals that kidnap for money. "We have received no request for ransom", Fr Calvo concludes, "but we hope that the kidnappers will contact us soon, provide proof that the women are alive, and open negotiations".

In Mindanao, the area where the Spanish volunteers were kidnapped, tension remains high between the government army and the troops of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), while the situation worsens for the refugees - more than 100,000 of them in the province of North Cotabato alone - who have had to leave their homes on account of the conflict. The sacred month of Ramadan has contributed to bringing a bit of calm back to the region, but it is feared that at the end of the month - with the end of the fasting - there will be a resumption of the fighting and an escalation of the violence. Many of the refugees bear the marks - physical and psychological - of the violence they have undergone, the results of the horrifying scenes they have witnessed during the raids carried out by MILF troops in their villages.

(Santosh Digal contributed to this report)

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