ZAMBOANGA CITY: Abu Sayyaf militants on Sunday freed three Indonesian hostages to the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in Sulu.
Officials identified the freed Indonesians as Muhammad Mahbrur Dahri, Ferry Arifin and Edi Suryono, all crew members of the tugboat Charles who were kidnapped in Sabah on June 22.
The boat, owned by PT Rusianto Brothers, was heading to Samarinda in East Kalimantan following a trip from the Philippines when gunmen on speedboats intercepted it.
Nur Misuari, the MNLF chieftain, escorted by dozens of armed followers, handed over the hostages to Sulu Governor Totoh Tan in the capital Jolo. Tan turned over the Indonesians to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
Calling it “another breakthrough,” Presidential Peace Adviser Jesus Dureza confirmed the release of the trio and said Misuari phoned him about it.
Dureza said Misuari requested him to inform President Rodrigo Duterte of the release.
“These efforts were a convergence of cooperation upon the direction of President Duterte involving the MNLF, the provincial government, the stakeholders and the AFP with its ongoing military operations in the area against the Abu Sayyaf Group,” Dureza said in a statement.
Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi also confirmed that the three hostages had been freed and would be handed over to a team from the Indonesian embassy.
Sunday’s handover was the latest hostage release overseen by Misuari, an elder Muslim rebel leader of the MNLF.
After a decades-long insurgency, the MNLF is engaged in peace talks with the Duterte government. The Abu Sayyaf is not part of the peace process.
In mid-September, a Norwegian hostage kidnapped in 2015 and three other Indonesian seamen were handed over by the Abu Sayyaf to Misuari who then passed them on to the government.
A few days later, another kidnapped Indonesian sailor was freed through the MNLF.
Military sources say the Abu Sayyaf are still holding a Dutch hostage, five Malaysians, two Indonesians and four Filipinos in their jungle stronghold in Sulu.
The militants beheaded two Canadian hostages earlier this year, after failing to collect a ransom.
The Abu Sayyaf is a loose network of militants formed in the 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network, and has earned millions of dollars from kidnappings-for-ransom.
While its leaders have in recent years pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, analysts say it is mainly focused on a lucrative kidnapping business rather than religious ideology.