ZAMBOANGA CITY: Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) bandits on Friday freed a Filipino woman from captivity in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao after they kidnapped her more than nine months ago, officials said.
The hostage, Maritess Flor, was brought to the house of Sulu Gov. Totoh Tan – the head of the Crisis Management Committee – at about 2 a.m. and was immediately given food and security.
Tan phoned the military to say Flor had been freed.
“She is okay. She was fed and examined medically and is so happy to be out of the jungle.
She spoke with Governor Totoh Tan and his father, Vice Governor Sakur Tan, and thanked them for their efforts and hospitality. Military officers who rushed to the house also spoke with Flor,” one of Tan’s aides told The Manila Times.
Flor was handed over to the group of Secretary Jesus Dureza, peace adviser of President-elect Rodrigo Duterte, who has sent a private plane to pick her up from Sulu.
Her family in Bukidnon province in Mindanao had appealed to Duterte to help secure her safe release.
Dureza said the elder Tan helped in securing the safe release of Flor on instructions from Duterte.
The elder Tan is also negotiating with the kidnappers for the freedom of another hostage, Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad, who is being held in captivity in Sulu, one of the five provinces under the Muslim autonomous region.
“We have direct instructions from President Rodrigo Duterte to secure the freedom of Maritess Flor and Kjartan Sekkingstad. Maritess is here with me now. There is an ongoing negotiation for Sekkingstad’s release,” Dureza also told The Manila Times.
Flor was presented to Duterte in Davao City during a police ceremony.
The incoming President said the elder Tan helped in securing the release of Flor.
“Governor Sakur Tan helped us,” he disclosed, while shaking hands with the vice governor.
Duterte said Sekkingstand may also be freed soon.
Flor and Sekkingstand were kidnapped along with Canadians John Ridsdel and Robert Hall on September 21 at a posh resort on Samal Island in Davao del Norte province, also in Mindanao.
Ridsdel and Hall, Flor’s fiancé, were beheaded separately by the Abu Sayyaf after their families and the Canadian government rejected a total of P600 million in ransom demanded by the terrorist group for the release of the two captives.
Dureza said no ransom was paid for the release of Flor.
“No, there was no ransom paid for Flor’s safe release,” he added.
Flor’s release came days after Duterte strongly warned the Abu Sayyaf to free all their hostages.
The military said operations against the Abu Sayyaf continue in Sulu province in Mindanao.
Flor also spoke to the press and narrated her ordeal, sobbing, but at the same time saying she was happy to be out of her misery.
She said her captors woke her up to say she would be released.
“Ginising lang ako kaninang madaling araw at sinabi nila na Maritess gising ka, sabi ko bakit, sabi nila tanggalin mo yan posas sa paa mo at sabi niya ihahatid kita, so yun lang [They woke me up early morning of Friday, I asked why, they said, remove the cuffs from your feet and we’ll escort you out, that’s it],” she also told reporters after meeting with Duterte.
Flor said they constantly walked in the jungle for long hours especially at night to evade security forces.
“Sa gabi naglalakad kami ng matagal at hindi ko kabisado ang lugar, wala akong alam kasi hindi rin nila alam [At night we walked for long hours and I don’t know the place, and they also don’t know where we are],” she added.
She sobbed after being asked about her feelings after Hall’s brutal murder.
“Yun pinatay nila si Robert, kasi alas 3 [ng hapon]yun ano nila [deadline]so naghihintay sila ng tawag doon sa media so pagtapos ng phone calls doon na sila nag decide na patayin si Robert [They decided to kill Robert after the 3 p.m. deadline for payment of the ransom lapsed],” Flor said.
“Sobrang sakit kasi nakikita ko sila bago pinugutan sila ng ulo, sobrang sakit at pinapanood nila, masaya sila, para masaya silang gagawin nila yun. Nilagyan lang nila ng posas at dinala sa unahan at doon na ginawa, wala na akong alam. Hindi ko nakita ang pagpugot sa ulo [I saw them before they beheaded Robert. They were happy with what they were to do. They handcuffed him and they did it. I did not see the beheading],” she added.
Flor said the Abu Sayyaf is threatening to execute Sekkingstad if his family fails to pay P300 million in ransom.
“Yun ang sabi nila kung hindi maibigay yun demand yun ang sabi nila, yun ang hinihingi nila dati yun ganoon ransom [That was what they said if the ransom is not paid],” she added.
The ASG was reported to have been paid P138 million (RM12 million) by the families of four Malaysian sailors whom they kidnapped two months ago.
The four are now safe in Sabah after their release earlier this month.
In Malacañang, Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said the military was still verifying reports of Flor’s release, only to find out that she was already on her way to Davao City to meet with Duterte.
Nevertheless, Coloma credited intensified military operations against the bandits that led to the freedom of Flor.
“AFP continues to pursue ASG bandits until all captives are freed or rescued safely,” the Palace official said in a text message to reporters.
AFP is the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
Police Senior Supt. Wilfredo Cayat, Sulu police provincial director, said in an interview that Flor’s release happened early Friday morning.
The ASG bandits had initially demanded P1 billion each for the hostages, which was eventually lowered to P300 million.
Ridsdel and Hall failed to pay ransom and for that they were killed.
Hall’s head has been recovered but his body remains missing to date.
WITH JOEL M. SY EGCO