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Arab TV reporter disappears in Sulu

Journalist known for Bin Laden interview
/ 02:12 PM June 15, 2012

KIDNAPPED OR WORKING? In this photo taken on Monday, veteran Middle Eastern TV reporter Baker Atyani poses by the seawall in Jolo, Sulu province, before he was reported missing. Atyani, a Jordanian, met and interviewed Osama bin Laden and his aides in Afghanistan months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. AP

ZAMBOANGA CITY—A veteran Middle Eastern TV reporter who had interviewed Osama bin Laden months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has disappeared with his two Manila-based crewmen while on a reporting trip on Jolo island, officials said on Friday.

Police said the driver of the journalists’ vehicle was also missing. Also still unaccounted for was a local female guide, The Associated Press reported.

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Baker Abdulla Atyani, Al-Arabiya’s TV bureau chief for Southeast Asia, had not contacted authorities since Tuesday, when he was last seen in Jolo, said the Sulu provincial police chief, Senior Supt. Antonio Freyra.

Authorities were trying to verify reports that Atyani may have traveled to Jolo’s mountainous jungles to interview members of the Abu Sayyaf group and some of their foreign hostages as part of a TV documentary, a military intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AP.

In the wake of the disappearance of Atyani and his crewmen, the US State Department renewed its travel warning to Americans in the Philippines, citing continuing terrorist threats and insurgent activities, particularly in Mindanao. (See related story on this page).

Chief Supt. Manuel Barcena, head of the Directorate for Police Operations in Western Mindanao, said the initial report they got was that Atyani and his TV crewmen, Rolando Letrero and Ramelito Vela, were “kidnapped” a day after arriving in Jolo.

Freyra told the Inquirer that Atyani and his two Filipino TV crewmen failed to return to their hostel after setting out on Tuesday. “It’s premature to say they were abducted,” he said, adding that their driver also remained missing.

Freyra said Atyani’s group left the hostel without a guide.

Rooms forcibly opened

Atyani, Letrero, 22, and Vela, 39, arrived in Jolo—a hotbed of guerrillas  notorious for bomb attacks, kidnappings and beheadings—on June 11 and were welcomed by local reporter Nickee Butlangan, according to Barcena. The visitors checked in at Sulu State College Hostel.

Veteran Middle Eastern TV reporter Baker Atyani, left, interviews Sulu Governor Sakur Tan, right, at the airport in Jolo during his taping of his story of the island in this photo taken on Monday. AP

The following day, June 12, Atyani and the two Filipinos were fetched by a white multicab from the hostel. They have not returned since, failing to show up for the Philippine Independence Day celebration on Tuesday despite having told officials they would cover the event.

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“Up to this date, we have no reports on their whereabouts,” Barcena said.

He said investigators had decided to forcibly open the two rooms that Atyani and his companions had rented at the hostel for any clues on where they might have gone.

‘Missing for now’

“We don’t know if he (Atyani) has been kidnapped. We don’t know their objective here,” Jolo Mayor Hussin Amin told AP by phone, adding they had been declared “missing for now.”

Butlangan told the Inquirer by phone that he was not involved in arranging Atyani’s coverage. He said he was at the airport to see off Sulu Gov. Sakur Tan who was leaving for Zamboanga City when Atyani’s team arrived.

Atyani introduced himself as a journalist and the public affairs team of Tan accommodated him. We toured them throughout mainland Jolo and he even met Jolo Mayor Hussin Amin, Butlangan said.

Butlangan said the last time he saw Atyani and his team was at around 9 p.m. that day. “We left him with Mayor Amin because the mayor said that he would make sure to bring them to the hostel where they checked in.”

He said he later learned that Atyani’s group left the hostel at around 5:45 a.m. on Tuesday.

Meeting Bin Laden

An ABS-CBN reporter, Ces Drilon, was planning to interview leaders of the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf bandits in Jolo in 2008 when the group held her for ransom for 10 days.

The Abu Sayyaf bandits are still holding two Europeans and a Japanese. There are conflicting reports whether an Indian hostage has died in captivity.

Atyani, a 43-year-old Jordanian based in Jakarta, Indonesia, was working for the Arabic satellite channel Middle East Broadcasting Corp. in June 2001 when he met Bin Laden and fellow militant leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan. He said they told him that the coming weeks would hold “important surprises that will target American and Israeli interests in the world.”

Months later came the attacks by hijacked planes on the World Trade Center in New York and on the Pentagon in Virginia that killed about 3,000 people.

Atyani later moved to the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya TV as its Asia bureau chief.

Amin’s concerns

Amin expressed fear for the journalists’ safety even though Atyani was an experienced reporter.

“Well, he doesn’t know what he got into this time. These gunmen are bandits and drug addicts. They can enter but it’s uncertain if they can exit,” Amin said.

The Abu Sayyaf group has launched more attacks in the last four years despite US-backed offensives on Jolo and neighboring islands. Authorities have failed to cut off a flow of money, food and weapons to the terrorists, the Philippine military said in a recent report.

The Abu Sayyaf is a more radical offshoot of a Muslim rebellion that has been raging in the southern Philippines for decades. The violence is fueled by abject poverty, corruption and the proliferation of weapons. With reports from AP, Tina G. Santos and Inquirer Research

Originally posted: 1:42 pm | Friday, June 15th, 2012

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TAGS: Abu Sayyaf, Al Arabiya Network, Al-Arabiya, Baker Abdulla Atyani, Baker Atyani, Crime, Jolo, journalist, kidnap, Kidnapping, Military, Mindanao, Osama Bin Laden, Police, Sulu
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