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Philippines: ICRC insists on unconditional release of kidnapped staff

29-01-2009 Interview

Two weeks have gone by since ICRC workers Marie Jean Lacaba, Eugenio Vagni and Andreas Notter were seized by gunmen on the southern Philippine island of Sulu. The three were visited by Vice Governor and chairwoman of the Sulu Red Cross chapter Lady Ann Sahidulla on Wednesday. Alain Aeschlimann, head of the ICRC's operations for East Asia, South-East Asia and the Pacific, talks about the latest developments.

   

   
 
  Alain Aeschlimann    
     Pictures have circulated on the Internet showing your colleagues with the vice governor of Sulu, Lady Ann Sahidulla, who is also chairwoman of the local Red Cross chapter. What's your reaction to this and what do you know about their condition?  

Vice Governor Sahidulla did meet with our colleagues on 28 January and says they are fine and i n good health. We see this face-to-face contact as a good sign, although we continue to insist on their rapid and unconditional release. 

Mary Jean, Eugenio and Andreas have also been able to make telephone calls on a number of occasions since their abduction. Talking with them and hearing that they are doing as well as can be expected in these difficult circumstances has brought some relief for their loved ones and, of course, their colleagues. But as time passes, those who love and care for them are understandably growing more and more worried about their well-being.

    

 Some media have reported that Eugenio and Mary Jean have health problems. Is this true?  

I think it's important for medical information to remain private. No one would want their health information to be made available for the world to know. They tell us they are in good health and the photo indicates likewise. Of course, every time we talk to them we let them know that their families and friends miss them and are waiting for them to come home. We tell them everyone sends their love.

Mary Jean, Eugenio and Andreas are very committed to the humanitarian work they carry out in the Philippines so it's not surprising that so many people in the country and outside have expressed their support and concern. It's both touching and encouraging to know how much their work is valued and that they are deeply missed as individuals. The continual and ongoing support of Philippine National Red Cross Society headquarters throughout this difficult time has also been invaluable and much appreciated by the ICRC.

    

 There are a lot of rumours circulating about different people involved in the efforts to free Mary Jean, Eugenio and Andreas. What can you say about that?  

I'm aware of the various reports that are out there. I can confirm that a contact with the kidnappers has been established but I'm simply not willing to comment beyond this. I wouldn't want to say anything that could compromise their safety or our chances of getting them home safe and sound as soon as possible.

That said, any information we receive is taken very seriously and we are working to establish what's credible versus what's not.

    

 It's been two weeks since they were kidnapped. Is their absence taking a toll on the ICRC's activities in the Philippines?  

Their abduction has meant that the water and sanitation project they were working on in Sulu has had to be put on hold, but the ICRC's work in the rest of the Philippines is continuing as planned.

Our activities in the Philippines, many of which are carried out in cooperation with the Philippine National Red Cross, are mainly centred on Mindanao. They include assisting internally displaced persons, providing access to safe drinking water and sanitation facilities, and visiting places of detention.

Of course, it's difficult for the staff in the Philippines and around the world to carry on as normal when their thoughts are very much with their colleagues and friends. We're all waiting for the day when we will have them back with us again.