President Rodrigo Duterte has created a high-level task force led by his foreign secretary to help secure the release of three Filipinos kidnapped in Libya, his spokesman said Tuesday, four days after threatening to send a warship to rescue the workers seized by gunmen last month.
An angry Duterte on Friday said he might send a frigate to Libya to join a South Korean ship Munmu the Great, a 4,400-tonne vessel, deployed by Seoul last week to pressure the gunmen to release their hostages.
But his spokesman, Harry Roque, on Tuesday said the president had changed his mind after an emergency meeting with his cabinet.
“Of course, he has stated previously that he was thinking of sending frigates together with the Koreans,” Roque said. “But he has since considered the advice of the cabinet to first form a task force.”
The Filipinos were with a South Korean when they were seized last month by an unidentified armed group as they worked on a water plant.
Roque said Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano has been tasked to lead the team to deal with the crisis.
He said that the kidnappers “are not agents of Libya” but are believed to be armed militias engaged in fighting with the government there.
“And that is why it was deemed more prudent to work with the Libyan government to see what the demands are,” he said.
Cayetano confirmed that he has been asked by Duterte, and said that no demands have yet been put forward. Manila has a policy of not negotiating with terrorists, and it remains to be seen how this would be handled.
Roque said that three Filipinos may have been seized by the Libyan gunmen because they worked in a water company, and that the commodity “is considered somehow equally valuable as oil.”
The South Korean government has added pressure by threatening to leave the water project in Libya if their national was not released, Roque said.
A video of the four captives appealing for help from their governments emerged on social media last week, forcing the South Korean move.
The footage of workers, posted on the SITE Intelligence Group website, shows them addressing the camera in English. A gunman is seen sitting behind the men in the sand, but no group has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.
Duterte on Friday said he was considering sending the navy’s most modern warship to join the search with the instruction to bomb the kidnappers’ site once they’ve found it.
About 3,000 Filipinos work in Libya, according to the Libyan Embassy in Manila.
Libya has been in a state of chaos since Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi was ousted and killed in 2011, with armed factions jostling for control of the oil-rich North African state. About 26,000 Filipinos were working in Libya when Gadhafi was in power, Filipino officials said.
The Islamic State has tried to take advantage of the power vacuum since the strongman’s death, often targeting diplomats.
While the Philippines bans all travel to Libya, it has not stopped Filipinos from going to the conflict-ridden region and skirting travel restrictions.
About a tenth of the Philippines’ 103 million people work overseas, many of them as domestic laborers, seamen and construction workers in far-flung areas such as the Middle East, where they are often exposed to danger.