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Jakarta Post

Indonesia closes somber year with one more Sulu hostage to rescue

  • Dian Septiari
    Dian Septiari

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Fri, December 27, 2019   /   03:09 pm
Indonesia closes somber year with one more Sulu hostage to rescue Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi (left) and Maharudin Lulani pray after attending the handover ceremony of hostages from the government to families at the Foreign Ministry compound in Central Jakarta on Dec. 26. Maharudin and Samiun Maneun were freed from Philippine militant group Abu Sayyaf during a gun battle with the Philippine military on Dec. 22, while one more citizen remains a prisoner. (JP/Dhoni Setiawan)

Wa Daya was at a loss for words when she was asked by officials to speak to the press about the recent rescue of her spouse, Maharudin Lunani, 48, from the clutches of militant rebels operating in the southern Philippines.

“I am grateful to God Almighty, President [Joko “Jokowi” Widodo] and the ladies and gentlemen who have rescued my husband,” she said eventually, in an orchestrated handover ceremony at the Foreign Ministry compound in Jakarta on Thursday.

The tears started flowing not long after – as it should be expected of a mother whose son is still being held hostage by a cell of the notorious Abu Sayyaf group. The absence of 24-year-old M. Farhan had become even more palpable when it dawned on the people in the room that he was the last remaining Indonesian hostage.

In a pre-dawn raid on Sunday, Philippine troops rescued Maharudin and his fellow sailor, Samiun Maneu, 27, from a rebel hideout in the mountainous town of Panamao on the southern island of Jolo. One soldier and an Abu Sayyaf rebel were killed in a 30-minute gunfight that broke out during the rescue operation.

The three men had been held hostage in the Sulu Sea region for around 90 days after they were first kidnapped on board Malaysian fishing trawler SN-388 in September in the waters off Tambisan in Sabah. They all hailed from Buton, an island located 1,300 kilometers from Sabah, off the Southeast peninsula of Sulawesi.

Both Maharudin and Samiun were not allowed to share details of the rescue operation and officials declined to give an explanation as to why Farhan was left behind.

“We can’t share the details because there is one remaining hostage and we are still focused on his rescue,” said the Foreign Ministry's director for overseas citizen protection, Judha Nugraha.

Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi said Indonesia had kept close contact with the Philippines, including among their leaders and defense ministries.

”We will work as hard as possible to rescue one more hostage, Muhammad Farhan [...] Hopefully he can also be safely retrieved,” Retno told reporters after the handover ceremony.

Like Sisyphus and his endless toil, the work of rescuing Indonesians abducted by paramilitary groups in the Sabah-Sulu-Sulawesi triangle seems unlikely to stop.

Notorious for beheading hostages if ransom payments are not fulfilled, the Abu Sayyaf group began targeting Indonesian sailors in 2016. Since then, 39 Indonesian sailors had been kidnapped. The minister refused to comment on whether any ransom was demanded for Farhan.

Thursday’s handover ceremony had become an almost routine event for the government, following an eerily similar event in April to reunite families with two erstwhile hostages kidnapped by the same rebel group. At the time, two sailors were rescued but another one drowned in an attempt to escape. They were thought to be the last of the hostages, until five months later Maharudin, Farhan and Samiun were kidnapped.

Their abduction in September was only the second incident to occur after trilateral maritime patrols between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines kicked off in 2018. The joint naval patrols were initiated in 2016 by then-defense minister Ryamizard Ryacudu amid warnings that the subregion could become the "next Somalia" – a reference to the rampant piracy around the Horn of Africa.

Indonesia had grown irritated with Malaysia for allowing the kidnappings to occur so close to Sabah’s administrative center, with former overseas protections director Lalu Muhammad Iqbal demanding that the Sabah Police facilitate the release of Indonesian hostages rather than just passing along ransom demands.

The foreign minister made another subtle swipe at Malaysia Thursday by underlining the importance of preventive measures. “We need to intensify the [trilateral] cooperation,” Retno said.

She also said Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto would meet his Philippine counterpart Delfin Lorenzana on Friday to raise the issue of security in the Sulu Sea.

A spokesperson for Prabowo, Dahnil Anzar, said separately that the minister was to express the state’s gratitude for the help it received in the recent rescue effort and “talk about the next follow-up to prevent another abduction of Indonesian fishermen – including by talking to Malaysia.”

The three countries previously entertained the possibility of joint military operations on land, which would help infiltrate the rebel group’s stronghold. However, constitutional protections have prevented it from happening. (tjs)