OCTOBER 20, 2006 (STAR) President Arroyo approved yesterday the immediate deployment of three additional troop battalions to Sulu to speed up efforts to crush the Abu Sayyaf and capture two of Asia’s most wanted terrorists believed to be hiding in Mindanao.

The President issued the order following a command conference with the military top brass and security officials at the Camiguin provincial capitol in Mambajao.

"Our orders (are) to finish off the terrorists in Sulu so we’re adding more troops in Sulu," Armed Forces chief Gen. Hermogenes Esperon later told reporters after the command conference.

Esperon said three additional battalions would be sent to Sulu but did not elaborate where the troops would come from.

The military has sent over 5,000 troops to hunt down Dulmatin and Umar Patek, the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) militants wanted for their alleged role in the October 2002 bombings in Bali, Indonesia that killed 202 people.

Both Indonesians have been given refuge by Abu Sayyaf chieftain Khadaffy Janjalani in the dense jungles near Patikul, in Jolo.

There are about six Army and Marine battalions in Jolo hunting down the two JI militants and the Abu Sayyaf under "Oplan Ultimatum."

"The President’s guidance is to immediately capture the high-value targets. That has been her standing order, to finish off or capture the high-value targets," Esperon said, referring to the two JI militants and Janjalani.

Esperon said the only addition to the directives is "to ensure the immediate safe rescue," of the four kidnapped last Tuesday in Sulu.

Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Public Information Office chief Lt. Col. Bartolome Bacarro said they have yet to receive the orders for the deployment of additional troops in Sulu.

"So far, wala pang ganoon (nothing yet) ," Bacarro told reporters at Camp Aguinaldo.

Bacarro, however, revealed the efforts of the military to rescue the four people abducted by heavily armed men in Sulu last Tuesday.

He said government troops have allowed negotiations to push through to allow the safe release of engineers Romeo Rivera, Reynaldo Rubio, Larry Bautista, and their driver Isidro Amarano.

Bacarro cited reports from the troops in saying the abductors are now asking for "board and lodging" for the release of the victims.

Rivera is an engineer of Monolithic Construction Co., which was contracted to work on a road-building project partly funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) through the Growth and Equity in Mindanao (GEM) program.

Rivera was accompanied by Rubio and Bautista, who were inspecting a completed portion of a Parang-Indanan road project.

The military has also tapped the services of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) to assist in the negotiations for the release of the four kidnap victims.

Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan added he also enlisted the help of religious and political leaders in Sulu to help in the release of the victims.

The Army’s 104th Brigade commander Col. Reynaldo Sealana said troops have secured the area to prevent the abductors from slipping through and handing over their captives to the Abu Sayyaf bandits.

"Our troops have been in place on the ground and are pressuring the abductors to prevent them from moving out in the area and bring their captives to the Abu Sayyaf," Sealana said.

Sealana claimed the abductors have been identified and their location pinpointed.

"We are allowing the peaceful means to take place but if this will bog down we will come in and rescue the hostages," Sealana said.

Sealana added troops are also monitoring any Abu Sayyaf bandit group in the area to prevent them from giving refuge to the abductors and their captives.

Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) public information chief Capt. Noel Abello said troops have set up road blocks in the area with the Navy implementing a naval blockade.

Abello said the police have already recovered the vehicle used by the victims in a nearby village in Parang.

"The police in the area is investigating whether it is a labor-related or Abu Sayyaf-related abduction incident," Abello said.

Abello said the abductors have not made any ransom demand.

The three engineers were on board a vehicle driven by Amaramo when it was flagged down by unidentified armed men before they were abducted in Parang on Tuesday.

It was not immediately known whether the gunmen had any links with the Abu Sayyaf but the military has identified one of the abductors as Bong Salih, a security guard and son-in-law of Maas Asdah, chief security officer of GEM facilities and properties in Parang.

Sulu Gov. Benjamin Loong said he has sent government emissaries to relatives of the suspects, whom he did not name.

The motive for the abduction was not immediately clear, although authorities noted kidnapping in Sulu usually involved ransom demands.

Loong, however, warned that if negotiations fail, military action is inevitable since government troops and policemen are already poised to launch rescue operations.

The military said they are also looking on reports that the abduction of the four could have stemmed from labor disputes between the workers and the construction firm.

The US Embassy in Manila denounced the abduction, describing the incident as "tragic and unacceptable."

Press Attaché Matthew Lussenhop said that despite the abduction, the humanitarian mission and development projects of the US government in southern Philippines will continue and will not be affected by the incident. — With Roel Pareño, John Unson, Jaime Laude, James Mananghaya

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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