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13 December 2000 - The Manila Times

'Robot' to surrender

Sayyaf chieftain expected to clear Estrada in hostage ransom yarn

By Jeannette Andrade and Johnna Villaviray

ONE of the high profile chieftains of the Abu Sayyaf is giving up before Christmas and is expected to give his side on allegations that President Estrada and a key aide pocketed part of the ransom paid for the release of foreign hostages held by the bandits for months on Jolo island, a lawyer said yesterday.

Ghalib Andang, alias Commander Robot, has sent surrender feelers and has asked arrangements for his safety, said Oliver Lozano, who months back introduced himself as the lawyer for the bandit.

Lozano said the ASG leader “wants to concede so he can finally live peacefully.”

Meantime, the German Embassy said it does not see any problem with the plan of Mr. Estrada and his secretary for flagship projects, Roberto Aventajado, suing the weekly German magazine Der Spiegel for printing false information.

The embassy issued the statement in reaction to the threat of Mr. Estrada and Aventajado to file a libel suit against the German magazine.

The Foreign Affairs department yesterday demanded an apology either from the magazine, or from the Bundesnachrichtendiest (BND) or the German secret service, for running the articles on the ransom kickbacks issue.

DFA Undersecretary Franklin Ebdalin also said that Mr. Estrada’s lawyers should determine where to file the lawsuit as the magazine may not have a representative here.

The magazine’s latest issue carried articles accusing the Chief Executive and Aventajado, who led the government’s negotiating team for the release of the foreign hostages, of receiving 40 percent of the $20-million ransom provided for the freedom of the hostages, including several Germans.

The magazine said 10 percent of the money was pocketed by Aventajado and that it based its stories on taped satellite telephone conversations between Aventajado and the bandit.

Ebdalin said the satellite conversations between Aventajado and Andang were taped “with the knowledge and consent of Aventajado, whose office even provided translations of parts of the discussions conducted in Tagalog and Tausug.”

“If the purpose of (Aventajado) was to engage in illegal activity, then the talks would not have been revealed to the German officials, much less taped,” he said.

Senate probe

Senators Rodolfo Biazon and Raul Roco yesterday filed resolution urging a Senate inquiry into the latest bombshell against the embattled President, now facing an impeachment trial for alleged corruption.

They said the allegations “further darkened the country’s image in the international community.”

Malacañang, which acknowledged the possible negative impact on the country of the Der Spiegel charges, did not hide its suspicions that the publication of the story on the alleged ransom kickbacks was designed to further embarrass Mr. Estrada.

Press Secretary Ricardo Puno said an international public relations company had hand in the publication in Der Spiegel of the articles and that this was timed with the ongoing trial of the President before the Senate impeachment tribunal.

He said the allegations in the articles of the German magazine were but a rehash of earlier news articles on the same matter carried by local and foreign publications, including Asiaweek.

Lozano denied on nationwide radio that there was a “shoot-to-kill order against his client, Andang,” saying that what was issued against the bandit was an arrest warrant.

He said he would invoke this warrant to arrange the surrender of the bandit, who is believed to be still in hiding in the hinterlands of Jolo.

The faction of Andang held the bulk of the 21 mostly foreign hostages the bandits seized in April from a resort island in Malaysia, and got $15 million for the release of the captives.

Lozano said if allowed to surrender, the bandit would be able to clear Mr. Estrada and Aventajado from allegations they received kickbacks from the ransom paid mostly by the Libyan government for the release of the Abu Sayyaf hostages.

Libel suit

German Embassy Press Attache Earnst Schwering said they find it reasonable for Malacañang to push through with plans to sue the German magazine for libel.

 “If they believe that they have been wronged, then by all means, sue. There is nothing wrong with that,” Schwering said, stressing that “while Berlin is all for press freedom, this freedom is not absolute and should not be abused by parties for their own gains.”

He added, “The German government is not in anyway involved in the (publication) of Der Spiegel, it’s a private company.”

In Senate Resolution No. 904, Biazon and Roco stressed on the need for an inquiry into the Der Spiegel’s accusations as this “has further darkened our international image and reputation and that of the leadership even more disastrously in Western Europe and the rest of the world.”

Biazon also pressed for an immediate review of government’s “no-ransom” policy in dealing with kidnappers and terrorists, and other security-related policies to avert a repetition of a similar “shameful” incident in the future.

The resolution directed the Senate committee on national defense and security to conduct the investigation in aid of legislation.

Aventajado vehemently denied the Der Spiegel articles.

“We must fight this,” Aventajado said Monday. “If there was ransom, definitely I had no cut. Now if they have proof, let them bring it out because I am sure they cannot bring out anything because I did not do it.”

He added: “What I know is they are damaging my integrity and my reputation. I have to protect them.”

Aventajado said the government’s policy is not to pay ransom to hostage-takers, but that “some people” had contact with the Abu Sayyaf bandits and may have paid money directly to them.

German intelligence

Der Spiegel said German intelligence agents discovered the alleged ransom skimming by listening in satellite telephone conversations with the hostages.

Puno said Mr. Estrada was “really upset” by the report and asked lawyers to study a possible libel suit against the magazine.

“He feels that if legal action is warranted ... he’ll do so,” Puno said. “He feels that this is a false report given publicity unduly in Germany quoting some unnamed so-called German secret service sources.”

Puno said the timing of the Der Spiegel report indicated its intent was to “further embarrass the President and maybe even somehow influence the impeachment trial” Mr. Estrada is facing on charges of bribery and corruption.

Puno said Mr. Estrada instructed him to issue a vehement denial that the President received some of the ransom money.

The Press Secretary said the magazine should produce the tape recording of the hostage negotiations on which it said its report was based.

“If not, an apology is due from Der Spiegel magazine, which is a confirmed ransom giver in itself since it admitted that it had to pay ransom for the release of its own reporter,” he said.

The magazine paid an undisclosed ransom to the Abu Sayyaf for the release of one of its reporters who was held by the rebels.

Mr. Estrada has asked the Philippine Embassy in Germany to obtain information about the German secret service’s tape recording, Puno said.

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