Arab TV reporter Atyani not 'missing,' says Philippine official

Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Middle Eastern TV journalist Baker Abdulla Atyani 'deceived' Sulu (south Philippines) Governor Sakur Tan about his itinerary on the day he and his two Filipino crewmen went missing in Jolo, the governor told Philippine Interior Secretary Jesse M. Robredo.

Even 'missing' may not be a right description for Atyani, Tan told the Inquirer, because the journalist may just be pursuing a story somewhere on the island.

"While we exerted every effort to assist and secure [Atyani], he deceived us," Tan said in his report to Robredo about his meeting with the Jordanian chief of Al-Arabiya News Network's TV bureau in Southeast Asia.

Atyani, who was known for having interviewed Osama bin Laden months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, disappeared with his two Manila-based crewmen while on a reporting trip on Jolo island on Tuesday.

The Philippine Palace said it was monitoring developments in the disappearance of Atyani and his crew. Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said in a radio interview on Saturday that the Sulu local government offered security for Atyani and his group, but this was turned down.

Another purpose

In his report to Robredo, who forwarded a copy to the Inquirer on Saturday, Tan said Atyani and his crew arrived in Jolo on Monday and did an interview with him and Jolo Mayor Hussin Amin before being taken around the island to shoot.

Tan said Atyani planned to fly to Zamboanga City on Tuesday afternoon and arranged to be picked up at the Sulu State College Hostel, where he and his crew stayed, at 2 p.m. that day.

But on Tuesday, a multicab arrived at the hostel at 5:40 a.m. and picked up Atyani and his crew. They have not been seen again since that morning.

The multicab had License Plate No. LCC 238. The driver also has not returned since Tuesday.

That suggested that Atyani had a purpose in coming to Jolo other than doing a local report. And he did not inform local officials and authorities lest they stop him.

Not kidnapping

Tan suggested that Atyani¿s deception was one reason why the Sulu local government and police could not confirm that the journalist¿s disappearance was a kidnapping.

¿We do not want to confirm as yet as we learned that [Atyani] has a record of meeting with top international terrorists, including having met and interviewed Osama bin Laden right before the 9/11 attack," Tan said.

No police operation

Sulu police were not mounting a search-and-rescue operation for Atyani and his crew, who were listed only as ¿missing."

¿That is the status," said Senior Supt. Antonio Freyra, Sulu police chief. ¿We cannot say abduction because there are no signs of struggle."

Freyra said investigators checked the rooms of Atyani and his crew at the hostel, but found no signs of a kidnapping. They also learned that a multicab picked up Atyani and his crew at the hostel early on Tuesday.

Atyani, his Filipino crew¿ cameraman Ramelito Vela and audioman Rolando Letrero¿ and the driver of the vehicle failed to return.

Freyra said Atyani turned down security offered by the police and Jolo local officials.

¿Maybe he was pursuing a story and he wanted to keep us at bay," Freyra said. ¿Maybe he arranged a meeting with the leadership of the Abu Sayyaf group and he didn¿t want others to cover it."

Freyra said he ordered all municipal police chiefs in Sulu to set up checkpoints and invite Atyani and his crew, if they showed up, to come back with them to the hostel, then send them to Manila.

No military operation

The military in Sulu also could not launch a search-and-rescue operation for Atyani and his group because they were reported only as missing.

¿If it is established that they were abducted, then we will meet with the police to plan an operation," Maj. Gen. Noel Coballes, chief of the military¿s Western Mindanao Command, said.

Coballes said Atyani did not coordinate with the military for security.

Tan said in his report to Robredo that Manila Times correspondent Julmunir Jannaral facilitated Atyani¿s trip to Jolo.

In a report published in the Manila Times yesterday, Jannaral confirmed that it was he who arranged interviews for Atyani in Jolo. But he said he had no control over Atyani¿s movements, as he is based in Manila.

Jannaral said Atyani was supposed to interview former Moro National Liberation Front chief Nur Misuari and the Philippine National Police spokesperson, Senior Supt. Generoso Cerbo, on Wednesday.

Jannaral corroborated Tan¿s report that Atyani and his crew left the hostel without informing the governor¿s public information officer, Sonny Abing, who played host to the visiting journalist.

Jannaral said he had nothing to do with Atyani¿s disappearance.

Puzzled

Acting Gov. Mujib Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao said he instructed the police to ¿conduct further assessment," as he, too, was puzzled by Atyani¿s disappearance. With reports from Norman Bordadora in Manila and Julie S. Alipala, Inquirer Mindanao

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