ZAMBOANGA CITY ? Swiss hostage Andreas Notter is free, but it remains unclear whether he was rescued by government troops or released by his Abu Sayyaf captors.
Notter himself told reporters yesterday in Jolo, Sulu that he was ?still a little bit confused how it happened? because ?everything happened very quickly.?
But Chief Superintendent Felizardo Serapio, chief of integrated police operations for Western Mindanao, said Notter was rescued yesterday morning ?near an established cordon? in the town of Indanan by militiamen ? the Civilian Emergency Force ? and the Indanan police.
?Actually, I don?t have a clear picture yet; everything is still garbled,? Serapio admitted. What was clear, he said, was that Notter was free ?and now with Sulu Governor Abdusakur Tan.?
Lieutenant General Nelson Allaga, chief of the Western Mindanao Command, also said Notter was found in Indanan.
?I?m not sure what barangay (village). Whether he was recovered, released or rescued, that I cannot say,? Allaga said.
Notter, 37, recalled walking with his captors but not how authorities got hold of him.
?I walked out, and I?m happy to be alive and safe,? he said.
Notter said his concern now was the last hostage, Eugenio Vagni, his Italian colleague in the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), whom he described as ?injured.?
Vagni, 62, is said to be suffering from a hernia and always in pain.
?Everything must be done to release him as soon as possible,? Notter told reporters.
He added: ?Prayers helped me, and I think everybody and the security forces.
?Thank you for the sacrifices.?
Shielded from public
The ICRC shielded Notter from public scrutiny.
After making a brief statement in Jolo, he was escorted out of the Sulu provincial capitol by ICRC personnel and brought to the forward base of the US Joint Special Operations Task Force Forward at Camp Teodulo Bautista in Barangay (village) Bus-bus.
From there, he was flown to Zamboanga City in a private helicopter that landed at the Gyncorp helipad at the Edwin Andrews Air Base.
At 4 p.m., Notter and some ICRC personnel took a private plane to an unknown destination.
The ICRC was informed by Philippine authorities that Notter was free at around 8 a.m. yesterday (Manila time).
Alain Aeschlimann, the head of the ICRC Asia-Pacific delegation, said Notter was ?being looked after? by his colleagues.
?He is safe, well and happy that he will soon be back with his family. However, his thoughts are with Eugenio Vagni, with whom he shared the kidnapping ordeal and who is not yet free,? Aeschlimann said in a statement.
Notter is to be flown to Manila for a debriefing and further tests, according to Gwen Pang, deputy secretary general of the Philippine National Red Cross (PNRC).
?After that, it will be decided if he will leave for Switzerland,? she said. ?He also wants to see his loved ones.? Notter asked for nothing except for Vagni?s release when he met with authorities yesterday morning, Pang said.
He said the last time he saw Vagni was on Friday as their guards had kept them separated, Pang said.
Vagni?s safe release is ?a concern? of the ICRC and PNRC, Pang said.
Aeschlimann reiterated this concern: ?We are, of course, very relieved that Andreas will soon be back in the arms of his loved ones. But we remain very concerned about Eugenio?s safety, and we call on the abductors to let him go safely, immediately and unconditionally.?
Lieutenant Colonel Edgard Arevalo, spokesman of the Task Force ICRC, said it was around 5:30 a.m. yesterday when Notter was recovered by members of the Siasi police and the Civilian Emergency Force in the vicinity of Barangays Katian and Mangilop in Indanan, a few minutes away from Jolo.
He said the civilian volunteers, who recognized Notter, immediately brought him to Governor Tan?s house.
Tan said that earlier, Notter?s captors learned of the presence of soldiers around 500 meters away from where they were. He said that since the soldiers were in a vantage position, the Abu Sayyaf decided to evade them.
But the Abu Sayyaf stumbled on a group of police and militiamen, and fled in another direction, Tan said.
During the rush, Tan said, Notter was able to run in the direction of the police and the militiamen.
Notter, Vagni, and Filipino engineer Mary Jean Lacaba were snatched on January 15 just after inspecting a water sanitation project at the provincial jail in Jolo.
Lacaba, 44, was freed on April 2, two days after the Abu Sayyaf threatened to behead one of the hostages if government troops did not pull out of Jolo.
But according to a leader of the civilian volunteers who said he was one of those who collected Notter, the Swiss national was released by the Abu Sayyaf in Barangay Lipunos in Parang town close to midnight on Friday.
The volunteers initially thought the man they had was Vagni, said the source, who asked not to be named for lack of authority to speak on the matter.
?It was near midnight. We were mobilized toward Parang. We thought there was an operation. When we got there, a group of armed men met us and turned over a foreigner to us. We did not know who the armed men were,? the source said on the phone.
He said the foreigner carried a bag that contained his belongings.
?We were helping him because he had difficulty walking even with a cane. We thought he was Vagni,? the source said.
It was only yesterday morning that he realized that the foreigner was Notter, the source said
Asked whether Notter was rescued, as Serapio had claimed, the source said the foreigner was released and that no tension occurred between his group and that of the armed men.
Arevalo, who professed surprise at Notter?s release, said the calibrated military pressure had helped secure the latter?s freedom.
He said Notter had told the military that the pressure kept the bandits on their toes, and that they could only move around a constricted area of about 20-30 kilometers a day.
?This welcome development manifests the enduring commitment of the security forces to give primacy to the life and safety of the kidnap victims by allowing negotiations for their release and keeping the military or rescue operation the final option,? Arevalo said.
Notter?s ordeal in the jungles of Sulu has not extinguished his concern for the people of the province.
Just hours after Notter found himself free, he and the ICRC staff were already discussing humanitarian projects in Western Mindanao, Pang said.
?He was very concerned about the people in the area where he had been working. He told the doctors who checked up on him [yesterday] morning of his plans for water sanitation projects in Jolo,? Pang said.
Notter, a business graduate who holds a postgraduate degree in history, was a history professor and had extensive experience in aid organizations before joining the ICRC full time.
For his first assignment in the ICRC, Notter was posted in a Central African Republic town of Bangui, which borders Sudan.
In 2007, he was transferred to the Philippines, where he serves as director of the regional mission based in Zamboanga City.
As head of the ICRC sub-office in Western Mindanao, Notter was mainly focused on helping victims of armed conflict, rebel groups and the military.
He has helped reunite families separated by the war and implemented livelihood, water and sanitation projects in the region.
He also worked for the protection of detained persons and the dissemination of information on international humanitarian law.
Pang, who had worked with Notter on Red Cross projects in Western Mindanao and who was with him in Sulu yesterday morning, said he was ?very smart? and led an ?active? lifestyle.
?He?s finding it difficult to recall what happened. He?s confused,? Pang observed.
Expressing relief that Notter was now free, General Alexander Yano, the Armed Forces chief of staff, said non-military avenues were being explored for Vagni?s release.
?The safe recovery of Notter is a relief to all government agencies working for the safe release of the ICRC victims and is proof of their unrelenting efforts,? Yano said in a statement.
?All non-violent mechanisms are being exhausted to ensure that this release of Vagni will happen in the soonest possible time. This is a product of interagency effort to utilize nonviolent courses of action to ensure the safe release of the victims,? he said.
Yano also said the military might not release sensitive details about how the captive walked free to avoid compromising efforts for Vagni?s release.
As careful in his words, Philippine National Police Director General Jesus Verzosa said there was ?a fire fight? between the bandits and government troops on Friday night.
He did not elaborate beyond saying that the PNP, which recently sent a reinforcement of more than 100 elite combat forces, was maintaining the security cordon in Sulu ?also to protect the civilian population.?
Asked whether the situation was expected to change after Notter?s rescue, Verzosa told the Philippine Daily Inquirer: ?The less hostages, the freer the movement of the troops. And the negotiations may also be easier now.?