“Have you been on an Ilyushin before?” the voice from the other end asked me. It was Assistant Secretary Willy Gaa of the Office of Asia-Pacific Affairs of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) who called me that early August evening in 2000.
“No Sir, I have never been on board one,” I said while wondering, at the same time, why the Assistant Secretary was asking.
“Okay. I already have cleared this with the Secretary,” Assistant Secretary Gaa told me. He was referring to Foreign Affairs Secretary Domingo L. Siazon, Jr. who I was then serving as Special Assistant in charge of national security matters.
“Tomorrow, an Ilyushin will land at Villamor Air Base. You are to board that plane and proceed to Zamboanga,” Assistant Secretary Gaa told me.
“Khadaffy is sending his Ilyushin. It will arrive at Villamor Air Base in the morning. Make sure you are to board that plane when it leaves for Zamboanga,” Assistant Secretary Gaa told me. He was referring to Libyan strongman Muammar Khadaffy whose government had been actively assisting in negotiating for the release of the hostages.
“Zamboanga? What am I going to do there, Sir?”
“This is still confidential but Malacañang just called and told me the Abu Sayyaf hostages will most likely be released tomorrow and will then be brought to Zamboanga. I already gave your name to the Executive Secretary and he is expecting you. We want you to be there.”
Finally, I told myself, the hostage crisis that made headlines all over the world will soon be over. The European and South African hostages that the notorious Abu Sayyaf snatched weeks earlier in Sipadan, a dive resort in Malaysia, would now be released.
“What is my mission, Sir?”
“You will be the DFA representative there. Just observe and report to us,” Assistant Secretary Gaa said. “And before I forget, make sure you bring some clothes with you.”
“You expect me to spend a few days in Zamboanga, Sir?”
“No, not Zamboanga. You are going to Tripoli with the hostages.”
I was at Villamor the next morning and took Khadaffy’s version of Air Force One to Edwin Andrews Air Base in Zamboanga. It was swarming with both foreign and local media. As instructed, I managed to get to Executive Secretary Robert Aventajado, the government’s lead negotiator, and introduced myself. He then turned me over to one of his aides, Jake Fleta.
However, because of last minute glitches, the hostages were not released that day. I was told one faction of the Abu Sayyaf still needed to be convinced about the hostage release. It would take a few days before the first batch would be released and I in turn would find my way to Tripoli.
It was Jake Fleta who called to inform me the hostages would be taken to Cebu. He advised me to proceed there in time for the departure the next day. I took the first available Philippine Air Lines flight to Mactan. I was able to link up with the group and boarded the plane with the French, Lebanese, and South African hostages and their respective ambassadors. Also on board was former Libyan Ambassador to Manila Rajib Azzarouk.
I thought I was the only government representative on board until I saw Dr. Farouk Hussein, Assistant Secretary at the Office of Muslim Affairs, who played a key role as one of the government negotiators.
My task was to escort and debrief the Abu Sayyaf hostages on board and upon arrival in Tripoli, observe their turnover to their respective governments, and then send reports to Secretary Siazon and Assistant Secretary Gaa in Manila.
I found myself in Tripoli the next day still in my office barong for the handover. I was stranded in Libya for almost a week. They could not send the plane back until they were sure the three remaining German hostages were released. Dr. Farouk and I stayed as guests in the government guest house. After a week we flew back to Manila via Frankfurt and Bangkok.
That adventure was surely one of my most memorable in the Foreign Service. And I have Ambassador Willy Gaa to thank for giving the junior officer that I was then that rare learning opportunity. The experience would serve me well in my assignment in Baghdad, 17 years later.