Missing Jordanian Helping Abu Sayyaf?

MANILA, Philippines --- Local authorities are not launching search and rescue operations for a Jordanian journalist and his two Filipino companions who went missing in Sulu province last week as they voiced suspicions that the foreign newsman might have been on a "secret mission" to help the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).

Senior Supt. Antonio Freyra, director of the Sulu Provincial Police office, said they are not discounting the possibility that Baker Atyani was tasked to funnel funds to the local terror group which he said has been plagued with financial problems.

"There are indications that they have discreet and hidden agenda. Maybe funneling fund, that is a possibility," said Freyra.

"Why? Because it is difficult now to transfer funds," he added.

The military earlier declared that the ASG is already dying down because of the vacuum of leadership brought about by the death of its key leaders and lack of funds following the busting of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and the aggressive hunt and eventual killing of Al-Qaeda's top leader Osama bin Laden.

According to reports, Atyani -- the regional bureau chief of the Al Arabiya news channel based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates -- is widely-known for having interviewed Bin Laden three months before the 9/11 attack in the United States.

Freyra said among the indications of close ties between ASG and Atyani was that the latter repeatedly turned down offer for security from both Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan and local police and military officers.

The official said Atyani even duped Tan when the Jordanian declared that he and his two Filipino crew -- cameraman Ramelito Vela, 39, and audio operator Rolando Letrero, 22 -- would not go out without security.

"They assured the governor that they will not go out without security. But early June 12, we found out that they have already arranged for a vehicle. Clearly, they fooled the government," said Freyra.

The official said they also received information that Atyani and his two Filipino companions were fetched for the interview with ASG officials.

The PNP leadership earlier revealed that Atyani was planning to interview Yasser Igasan, the spiritual leader of the remaining ASG in Sulu.

"They will not go out and go with them if they were not assured of their safety," said Freyra.

As such, Freyra said the police, along with the military and the local chief executives including Governor Tan, are not convinced that Atyani was kidnapped.

Freyra said there has never any confirmation so far that the three victims were kidnapped.

"The Governor directed me not to rescue them because they were just hanging out there," said Freyra.

What they will do, according to Freyra, is to conduct checkpoints, hoping that they may cross paths with Atyani and his two Filipino crewmen.

Meanwhile in Malacañang, Deputy Presidential Spokeswoman Abigail Valte said yesterday the police are now pursuing all potential leads in the case of the missing Jordanian journalist amid unconfirmed reports he may be associated with the al-Qaeda terrorist network.

Valte said they could not yet confirm if Atyani, who went missing since last week, is indeed a conduit to the al-Qaeda organization.

"I cannot confirm that. However what we can tell you is that the PNP (Philippine National Police) is exploring all angles in the case of Mr. Atyani," Valte said when asked if the foreign journalist is a terrorist cell contact assigned to deliver funds to the ASG.

Valte, however, stated that Atyani, currently in the hands of the Abu Sayyaf, must be subjected to debriefing by authorities once he resurfaces. The Palace earlier confirmed that Atyani and his two Filipino crew are in the custody of the ASG for a supposed interview but is unclear if they have been abducted.

"When Mr. Atyani reappears, he will be subjected to some form of questioning about what happened," Valte said. "Of course, the local authorities cannot just let him walk away and leave. Of course, they will have their own questions for him. He will be debriefed," she added.

Asked if Atyani should be charged for violating the country's anti-terrorism law for interviewing terrorists, Valte said it is up to the Department of Justice to determine such case.

The government, meantime, will have to study carefully any proposed ban on foreign journalists from interviewing terrorists like the Abu Sayyaf, according to Valte. She noted that such proposal may have implications on curtailing press freedom.

"I would imagine that some media groups will have a problem with that. That will have to be discussed if the proposal reaches us," she said.

Valte also appealed to journalists to coordinate with authorities if they plan to cover stories in places with security threats, adding the government is ready to provide protection. "However, we would advise very strongly against compromising the safety and security of reporters whether they be foreign or local," she said.

The military has deployed troops to locate Atyani and two Filipino cameramen who have been declared missing in Sulu since June 12.

Col. Jose Johriel Cenabre, deputy commander for Marines operation of the Naval Forces in Western Mindanao (NFWM), however, stressed there is no rescue operation yet.

This, even as the military confirmed that Atyani and his Filipino companions are now in the hands of the Abu Sayyaf.

It can be recalled that Atyani and his Filipino crew were declared missing after the three failed to return to their room at the Sulu State College (SSC) Hostel where they checked in 11 p.m. on June 11.

At 5:45 a.m. the next day (June 12), the three men were reportedly fetched by a man driving a multicab and have not returned since then.

"They are with the Abu Sayyaf, yes, but as (to) whether they were kidnapped or doing interview until now we are not really sure because they have with them their equipment," said Cenabre.

The official added the status of the three is still "missing" and not kidnapped although they are now in the hands of the ASG.

"The same position pa din tayo dyan... na talagang hindi pa kidnapped yung kanilang status kasi wala pa namang nag-own na kinidnap sila, puro speculation lang," said Cenabre.

The official further said while they have sent out troops to the area, the soldiers' mission is locate the missing journalists, not to rescue them so as not to compromise their safety.

"We do not want to (do anything that) may compromise yung safety ng tatlo," said Cenabre.

"May deployment na tayo... but we are not running after them... kasi we don't want to preempt something that we don't like to happen," he said, adding all efforts in relation to the case of the missing journalists are in coordination with Sulu Governor Tan.

"Lahat yun ay under the direction of the governor who is in total control of the situation," said Cenabre, adding: "We don't want to turn all these into kidnapping when it is not even kidnapping." (With reports from Genalyn D. Kabiling and Elena L. Aben)