ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines—Some 5,000 people from security forces and volunteers are now combing the western part of Tawi-Tawi in search of the two European birdwatchers abducted by unidentified gunmen on February 1 as their governments are increasingly worried about their safety, a top provincial official said.
“We have more than 3,000 hectares of forest here and the mission of that team is to make sure every part is inspected,” Governor Sadikul Sahali told the Inquirer by telephone on Friday.
The province is made up of 300 islands, the major ones of which include Tawi-Tawi, Sanga-Sanga, Bongao, Simunul and Sibutu.
Sahali said the authorities were trying their best to locate Dutchman Ewold Horn and Swiss Lorenzo Vinciguerra, and it was hoped that the deployment of more security forces and volunteers would yield positive results.
Horn, Vinciguerra and Filipino birdwatcher Ivan Sarenas were returning to Bongao, the provincial capital, from a 14-day sojourn in the municipality of Panglima Sugala on the biggest island in the Tawi-Tawi group when they were abducted at sea.
Their escorts, a policeman and a local official, were allowed to leave, along with the boat operator. Sarenas managed to escape by jumping overboard later that night and swam in the darkness toward another island where he was aided by fishermen.
“We are hoping there would be positive news in the coming days,” Sahali said.
He admitted that authorities in Bern and The Hague, the Swiss and Dutch capitals, respectively, were closely watching the developments in the search and rescue operations.
He said officials from the Dutch and the Swiss embassies in Manila have been frequently contacting him for updates.
“They keep on calling me every day; they want to know the progress of our efforts, they are very much worried over the safety of the two victims,” Sahali said.
Acting Governor Mujiv Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao said also that European diplomats were in close contact with him.
He said he would always tell them that the efforts were continuing and that the victims have not been sighted so far.
Sahali said they believed that the kidnappers and the victims have not gotten out of Tawi-Tawi yet.
He said had they done so, the kidnappers would have made contact by this time.
“Probably, they would have made known their demand by now,” Sahali said.