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News blackout imposed on Filipino abduction

As negotiations for the release of the 24 Filipino seafarers in Nigeria enter a “critical" phase, the foreign affairs department has become tightlipped on the progress of the talks with the Nigerian militants.

“After today’s press conference, there will be a news black out because negotiations are critical," Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Eduardo Malaya said Friday.

This developed a day after a wire agency came out with photographs of the Filipino hostages with their masked, armed captors. The photographs were taken on the creeks of Niger Delta.

Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Esteban Conejos refused to provide information on the status pf the negotiations with the Nigerian militants. He simply said negotiations were “still ongoing."

“Talks are ongoing as we speak. Because of the sensitive nature of the case, I can not disclose more details," Conejos told newsmen.

On Thursday, Philippine Ambassador to Nigeria Masaranga Umpa reported to the DFA that Secretary to the State Government of Delta State and chief government negotiator Barr. Ovie Omo-Agege admitted to him that the Delta State government “has a little difficulty in dealing with the abductors, as they have made some political demands." But the chief negotiator “believes that this development can be worked out."

However, the ambassador said the seafarers snatched from a German cargo ship on Jan 20 in the Upper Niger Delta are “in good condition" and "all looking well."

“We assure you that that the 24 seamen are in good physical condition based on eyewitness accounts," Conejos echoed on Friday.

It was learned that the Filipino seamen, led by Capt. Ruben Roble, have been tightly guarded by heavily-armed men in masks and black overall suit.

Conejos said 21 of the seamen are in the village and three others have remained inside the vessel Baco Liner II to prevent the ship from drifting off the sea.

While neither Umpa nor the DFA has not said what the specific political demands were, the militants calling themselves as Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND) have been demanding the release of separatist prisoners in Nigeria in exchange for the freedom of their captors.

Earlier wire reports said MEND, a militant indigenous people's movement, has been seeking the release of two jailed ethnic ljaw leaders -- Mujahid Dokubo-Asari who was charged with treason, and Diepreye Alamic yeseigha, a former governor of Bayelsa State charged with corruption.

Conejos said he was not aware of the demands of the hostage-takers because the Philippine government has not been involved in the negotiations. He said he was also not aware of any deadline given by the militants.

“We are not negotiating directly with this group (and ransom) is pure speculation at this time. You can not give a deadline on this kind of situation" he asserted.

GMANews.TV contacted Philhammonia Ship Agency Inc., the seafarers’ shipping company in the Philippines, but it refused to give information on the abducted Filipinos.

A sister of one of the abducted seafarers informed GMANews.TV on Thursday that officials of the company called the relatives of the seafarers to a meeting on Wednesday.

“The shipping agency called a meeting with families of the abducted (seamen) yesterday. No update from the government. The rebels don’t want media. My brother (is) believed to be on the ship with the captain, chiefmate and cook. There are 30 rebels staying on the ship. (They are) tribal people with painted faces. All forms of communication (were) cut. They are moving the hostages," the relative said.

Earlier, POEA administrator Rosalinda Baldoz said her office has been closely coordinating with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Philhammonia, not only on the identities of the abducted seamen but also to work out measures that could ensure their safe release.

The 24 Filipino crewmen of a cargo ship operated by Germany's Baco Liner 1 were taken off a vessel in Chanomi Creek in Delta States. The shipping line runs between Europe and several ports across West Africa.

The ship was headed for the port of Warri, capital of Delta State in Nigeria

The government has suspended the deployment of Filipino workers to Nigeria following the abduction.

Umpa had a coordination meeting with Omo-Agege at the Delta State government annex office in the capital of Warri on Wednesday regarding negotiations for the release of the Filipino hostages who were snatched on Jan 20.

“The chief government negotiator informed the Ambassador that he had personally gone to Chinoma Creek the previous day and saw for himself that the Filipinos were well. He also articulated the State government’s assurance that ‘all efforts are still being exerted to effect their release’," the DFA said in a press statement.

Further, Umpa reported that because of the constant monitoring and pressure from Delta State Governor James Ibori, a Delta State Security Council meeting was called on Wednesday and discussed the negotiations for the release of the Filipino captives.

The governor, deputy governor and the commanding generals of the different armed services of Delta State participated in the meeting.

Umpa reported that he has been in daily contact with Klaus Stefsen, general manager of the shipping company that owns Baco Liner 2, the German cargo ship employing the 24 Filipino seafarers.

He said Stefsen informed him that the local pilot of the vessel had seen the Filipinos, and has confirmed that they are still in good condition.

The Philippine government has asked the Nigerian government to rule out military rescue operations for the release of the 24 Filipino seamen.

"Military operation is not an option. We want to put our Filipino seafarers out of harm's way so we appealed to the Nigerian government to forego any operation," said Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Esteban Conejos.

The Philippine government has repeatedly conveyed to Nigerian officials that it wanted a "peaceful resolution" to the hostage crisis, he added.

"If there's a way to resolve this peacefully, we want to exhaust them," he said, adding that he is not aware of the demands set by the kidnappers in exchange for the release of the Filipinos.

He also said it has not been confirmed if MEND masterminded the abduction and there is no deadline set by the kidnappers to resolve this event.

"MEND, according to reports, has denied involvement. But this movement may have splinter groups. There are other militant groups operating there and the Nigerian government is in discussion with the group holding the Filipinos," he noted.

Based on an embassy report, Conejos said the Filipinos have been moved to another camp, but remains in a village in Warri.

Umpa leads a six-person Embassy team in Warri, monitoring the situation there and coordinates with the Delta State government as the phase of negotiations enters the second week.

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