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Behind the scenes of diplomatic efforts to save two Canadian hostages in the Philippines

On November 17, 2016, Vice News Canada media organization reported about extensive details in the days leading to the execution of two Canadian hostages in the Philippines.

Vice News reported that the day before the deadline set by Abu Sayyaf gunmen in the Philippines to behead Canadian hostage John Ridsdel, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, and emphasized that his government has a firm policy against paying ransoms.

Details of the exchange on April 7, 2016 between Trudeau and Aquino are contained in documents obtained by VICE News through access to information.

The kidnapping of the two Canadians, Ridsdel and Robert Hall, had gained international attention.

The two men, along with a Norwegian man and a Filipino woman, had been kidnapped and held hostage by the Abu Sayyaf in the jungles of the southern Philippines.

Ridsdel was executed on April 25, while Hall was killed on June 13.

According to emails regarding the call between the two leaders, Trudeau “expressed appreciation for efforts to date, that threat was credible, and that we have a firm no-ransom policy”, Vice News reported.

While that policy may have been “firm”, according to the report,Trudeau had yet to publicly acknowledge that Canada was refusing to pay the hostage-takers. It was only after Ridsdel was killed on April 25 that Trudeau publicly emphasized that policy, said the report.

According to Vice News, talking points provided to Trudeau before the call recommended he emphasize that the Philippines is Canada’s closest partner in Southeast Asia, thank the president’s support for Canada’s bid to join the East Asia Summit, his commitment to ending the insurgency in the southern Philippines and to countering terrorism.

Abu Sayyaf had threatened in a March 10 video to execute Ridsdel on April 8 if their previous demands of $100 million Philippine Pesos (about CAD $2.7 million) for the hostages weren’t met.

According to the emails, “Canada believes the threat to all the hostages is real: The April 8 deadline is credible with the Filipino hostage and one of the Canadians most at risk.”

The emails also reveal that while Canada was publicly warning that the ransom deadline was firm, officials wondered behind the scenes whether that was in fact the case.

 

Vice News reported that after the March 10 video emerged online, which set the April deadline, the Philippine Ambassador suggested to Canadian officials that Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion should speak with Philippine Foreign Secretary of the day Jose Rene Dimataga Almendras, who had just been appointed, saying “it would be a wise step for Canada to take if we are to secure Philippines buy-in”.

On March 11, according to Vice News, Canadian officials marked this phone call “high” importance and said it should happen at the earliest opportunity “including over the weekend if possible”.

But the urgent call fell to the wayside as another government department decided “not to pursue”, Vice News reported. The news organization added that it was only after a terse email on March 17 from the Canadian official who first suggested the call that it was finally arranged.

When the call took place March 21 in the late evening, it was “very cordial” and lasted just over 10 minutes. Dion stuck to similar talking points as Trudeau.

On April 14, according to Vice News, which was only days before Ridsdel was killed, there was a news report that the U.S. had sent 300 troops and combat aircraft to the Philippines in response to China’s increased presence in the South China Sea.

“This one may well impact the critical incident [the kidnappings], i.e. provide a handy excuse, if demands are not met, even if US (temporary) deployments including reportedly of special ops elements, are related ostensibly to countering Chinese heft, not ISIS-affiliated or wannabe groups,” one email reads, according to Vice News.

Robert Hall and John Ridsdel (right) were killed by Abu Sayyaf gunmen in the Philippines.