Kidnappers free Fil-Am but keep teenage son
ZAMBOANGA CITY—She is finally free but her ordeal is far from over. Looking deeply traumatized, she worries about her 14-year-old son, who remains in captivity.
Gunners believed to be Abu Sayyaf bandits on Sunday night freed Filipino-American Gerfa Yeatts Lunsmann from nearly three months of captivity, but they held on to her son and a nephew in the jungles of Basilan island.
“Gerfa hugged me tightly and I can feel she was happy to be free. But at the same time I could feel her weariness because her son Kevin is still with the captors,” Zamboanga City Mayor Celso Lobregat said Monday, recounting his meeting with Lunsmann after her kidnappers released her.
“It makes the matter more traumatic for her because their ordeal is not yet over and she is still in a psychological shock because of her son.”
Lunsmann’s ordeal ended at 10:45 p.m. on Sunday when gunmen riding on an outrigger boat and wearing ski masks brought her to a wharf in Maluso on Basilan island and told her to walk to the town center.
There she was picked up by a police patrol.
The fate of Lunsmann’s son, Kevin, and a nephew, Romnick Jakaria, 19, was still uncertain but they are believed still held captive.
It was not clear if any ransom was paid for Lunsmann’s freedom but that has been the case in previous abductions.
No group has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping but Abu Sayyaf members were suspected to have pulled it off.
Authorities would not say if ransom was paid for Lunsmann’s release. “I don’t want to speak about that,” Lobregat said.
Shortly after Lunsmann and the two boys were kidnapped on July 12, media reports in Zamboanga quoted officials as saying the abductors had demanded $10 million for their release. But this was never confirmed.
Lunsmann, a 47-year-old veterinarian who lives in Virginia, was born to a Muslim family near Zamboanga. She was adopted by an American couple as a child and grew up in the United States. She has visited her home province at least five times before, police said.
Lunsmann was still in a state of shock when she was handed over to US authorities at dawn Monday, Lobregat told reporters.
“She looked very tired, hair was disheveled, she was so weary,” Lobregat said, describing how she looked when he first saw her at the Western Mindanao Command headquarters.
When she finally agreed hours later to face the media at Zamboanga City Hall, Lunsmann kept her face down and never smiled. She appeared gaunt and worried, clasping her hands.
Lobregat said that even after Lunsmann had agreed to face the reporters, she emphasized to him that “I cannot handle questions at this time.”
‘She was lost’
Lunsmann was wearing a long-sleeved purple shirt, jeans and her face was covered with a white baseball cap.
She stayed for about 10 minutes inside Lobregat’s office and for about five minutes during the media presentation. Then she was whisked away by US personnel in civilian clothes.
Recounting his talk with Lunsmann, Lobregat said: “She was still quite lost. She could not give details about the circumstances she went through and we respect that.”
In Manila, the US Embassy said Lunsmann’s release “could not have occurred without the concerted efforts of Philippine government officials and the personal engagement of Mayor Lobregat.”
Gunmen snatched Lunsmann and the two boys on Tigtabon Island off Zamboanga City on July 12 while the Lunsmanns were vacationing with their relatives on an island near Zamboanga City.
In a July 17 cell phone call to the captives’ relatives in Virginia that was traced to Basilan, the hostage-takers demanded a huge ransom, according to Philippine officials.
Shortly after her release on Sunday, Lunsmann was found by policemen who were verifying a report about the presence of armed men in Barangay Townsite in Maluso, according to Chief Superintendent Bienvenido Latag, Western Mindanao police director.
“Instead of armed men, they found Lunsmann,” Latag said.
Lunsmann was flown by helicopter from Basilan to this city at around 2:10 a.m. and turned over to Lobregat.
In FBI hands
According to Lobregat, Lunsmann was suffering from a “traumatic situation” but no details about her medical condition were released.
She was later turned over to two agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), identified as Jagdeep Khangura and Michael Paysan, and then flown to Manila, where she underwent a medical checkup.
Lobregat said the Lunsmanns were not rich people and that Hiko, the husband, was a utility worker.
“Efforts are now being made to also recover the children,” Lobregat said.
Lunsmann was “physically healthy” but visibly traumatized by her ordeal and was worried that her son remained in captivity, Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo said.
She did not reply at times when people tried to talk to her or ask her questions, he said.
The US and Philippine governments did not pay any ransom for her release, Robredo said, but added he was unaware if any private group paid for her freedom.
Ransom kidnappings have long been a problem in impoverished areas in the southern Philippines and are blamed mostly on the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf, a group also notorious for beheadings and bombings.
Two Philippine security officials, however, said former Moro rebels who have turned to kidnappings for ransom may have abducted the Lunsmanns and brought them to Basilan, where they held them with the help of the Abu Sayyaf and rogue members of a larger rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Moro militants and outlaws have resorted to such loose underground alliances in recent years, underscoring their desperation for funds, said the two officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
The Abu Sayyaf is blamed for a series of kidnappings, including the abduction of 20 people from an island resort in Palawan in 2001. An American tourist among them was beheaded in captivity while one of two US missionaries was killed during a rescue mission.
Blacklisted by US
The Abu Sayyaf was founded in Basilan in the 1990s as an offshoot of a violent Moro insurgency that has been raging for decades. US-backed offensives have weakened the group, which is blacklisted by Washington as a terrorist organization, but it remains a key security threat.
Hundreds of US troops are stationed in Mindanao, including Basilan, to train and equip Philippine forces but are prohibited from engaging in local combat.
The Abu Sayyaf, which is estimated to have about 380 fighters, still holds an Indian, a Malaysian and a Japanese convert to Islam, along with a number of Filipino hostages.
Lobregat would not give details about the kidnappers or the negotiations that helped to secure Lunsmann’s release.
“We cannot publicly reveal or say who the kidnappers are because the safety of the two children is primordial. We don’t want to release any information that could jeopardize the negotiations,” Lobregat said. Reports from AP, AFP and Jerry E. Esplanada
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