MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) - Malacañang confirmed that the Jordanian journalist "is in the hands" of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).
“What we can confirm is that he is in the hands of ASG and that he went there voluntarily for an interview,” Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda told reporters.
But it is not yet clear if the journalist, Baker Abdulla Atayani and his two Filipino cameramen, Rolando Letrero and Ramelito Vela, are being held against his will.
“We have no confirmation as to that effect,” Lacierda said when asked if the journalist is being held hostage. “What we can confirm is that he went there voluntarily to interview the Abu Sayyaf Group. It is also confirmed that he has, in another occasion, had the opportunity the interview the Abu Sayyaf previously."
Lacierda said the government is maintaining its no-ransom policy but said that a crisis committee has been formed by Sulu Governor Abdusakur Tan, in coordination with Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Jesse Robredo.
When asked if Tan is holding talks with the Abu Sayyaf, Lacierda said, “That is our understanding. He formed the crisis committee and they are in discussions."
Lacierda said the journalist was offered security by Tan and a house to stay in by a mayor, but the journalist declined.
Lacierda said the government would not stop journalists from venturing into the lair of the Abu Sayyaf but asked journalists to advise authorities of their plans. He said the government is ready to advise and offer security to journalists.
“Hindi po kami nagtitigil sa mga journalists kung ano ang gusto nilang gawin. Abisuhan lang po ang gobyerno lalo na kung may mga lugar na medyo maselan, sabihin po sa atin. And we will give our fullest effort to advise and to provide security. But again, nasa journalist po ‘yan kung tatanggapin nila ang tulong o ang advise ng pamahalaan,” Lacierda said.
Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo said companions of Atayani claimed in a phone call that they were not kidnapped.
"There was a call made by the Filipino companions," he told ANC on Monday. "They confirmed they're now with an Abu Sayyaf commander and they also confirmed that they were not abducted."
"In this case, while we have a standard precautionary measure, on his own he decided he'll make his own contact, and do the interview," he said.
Based on initial investigation by the police, Atayani, whos is Al Arabiya's bureau chief in the Middle East, wanted to interview Abu Sayyaf leader Yasser Igasan.
Atayani previously landed an interview with the Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Sulu police said Atyani misled authorities about his real intentions.
"We are now looking for him here in Sulu. He probably thinks he can just interview terrorists groups here since they have common friends," said Chief Supt. Mario Avenido, ARMM police regional director.
The dissappearance of Atayani and his companions has brought in more foreign news teams to Sulu.
This has prompted the military to issue an appeal.
"We would like to advise all journalists heading to Sulu, please, please ask for security and briefing before covering in Sulu. Don't go with the Abu Sayyaf Group," said Armed Forces spokesman Col. Arnulfo Burgos.
Meantime, Lacierda said the most recent travel advisory from the United States was not due to this development in Sulu.
The Palace believes that the advisory is an “upgrade” since it has removed certain places, where US citizens are being advised to avoid.