ABU SAYYAF bandits on Sunday freed three Indonesian tugboat crew members in Sulu, a day after they released a Norwegian captive.
Indonesian sailors Teo Kopong, Lorenz Koten and Emmanuel, who were kidnapped in July in Sabah, were handed over, along with Norwegian hostage Kjartan Sekkingstad, to Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) founder Nur Misuari, who was said to have “assisted” in their release and provided shelter.
The kidnappers were reportedly paid P30 million in ransom following negotiations with former Indonesian army general Kivlan Zein.
No other details surrounding the negotiations were available, but the release of the hostages came after the Abu Sayyaf freed Sekkingstad for a P30-million ransom payment.
The militants handed over Sekkingstad to an MNLF commander named Tahil Sali, who allegedly helped in the negotiations, according to an army report.
The Philippine military’s Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) had linked Sali to deadly attacks against government forces in Sulu, where he was said to fought alongside the Abu Sayyaf.
Zein, through MNLF chieftain Misuari, also negotiated the release of 14 kidnapped Indonesian sailors in Sulu in May this year.
The Abu Sayyaf, which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, is still holding four Malaysian sailors, three Filipino fishermen, a Dutch photographer and a Japanese treasure hunter in southern Philippines.
The three Indonesian sailors were kidnapped on July 9 at Lahad Datu in Sabah.
Maj. Felimon Tan, Westmincom spokesman, said the freed hostages were brought to the Camp Teodulfo Bautista Station Hospital in Jolo, the capital of Sulu, for medical examinations and debriefing.
“The release of the kidnap victims is an offshoot of the ongoing military operations to sustain pressure against the [Abu Sayyaf], and the assistance of the MNLF,” he said.
‘Lucky to be alive’
Escorted by a small contingent of Jolo police on Sunday, Misuari, Presidential Peace Adviser Jesus Dureza, the freed captives and local officials met in a building surrounded by hundreds of MNLF fighters before leaving for the military camp.
Sekkingstad appeared gaunt and frail as he was handed over to Dureza along with the three Indonesian seamen who had been held captive with him.
“I am so very happy and lucky to be alive,” said Sekkingstad, heavily bearded and wearing a camouflage jacket, told reporters in the town of Indanan before being flown to meet President Rodrigo Duterte.
Sekkingstad was abducted by the Abu Sayyaf in September last year from a high-end tourist resort in Samal Island that he managed.
Two Canadians taken hostage at the same time, John Ridsdel and Robert Hall, were later beheaded by the group after a ransom demand of about P300 million ($6.5 million) was not met.
Sekkingstad showed the press his backpack with his rubber slippers, plastic water jug and other items he used in captivity, saying that he would never lose these “souvenirs.”
He also thanked President Duterte.
Sekkingstad and Dureza were transported to an airbase where a plane flew them out to Davao City for the meeting with Duterte.
The three freed Indonesians were taken to Zamboanga City where a retired Indonesian general was waiting to pick them up.
No ransom for Norwegian
Norwegian foreign affairs communications chief Frode Andersen told AFP by phone that “the Norwegian government does not pay ransom in this case or any other case.”
Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar also said “the [Philippine] government maintains the no-ransom policy.”
“If ransom was indeed handed over from a third party or the family, we would not know. What we know is that the government does not give ransom money to [Abu Sayyaf] kidnappers,” Andanar said in a radio interview.
A spokesman for the Abu Sayyaf was quoted in a local newspaper on Sunday as saying the group received P30 million (about $625,000) for the Norwegian.
Last month, President Duterte told reporters private negotiators paid P50 million to the Abu Sayyaf for the release of Sekkingstad, but the group demanded P250 million more.
The Abu Sayyaf is a loose network of militants formed in the 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network.
It is based in remote Muslim-populated southern islands in the mainly Catholic Philippines, and has earned millions of dollars in ransom from kidnappings, often targeting foreigners.
While its leaders have in recent years pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, analysts say the Abu Sayyaf is mainly focused on a lucrative kidnapping business rather than religious ideology.
The group, which is blamed for the worst terror attacks in Philippine history and is listed by the United States as a terrorist organization, has been the target of a military operation since August.
WITH AFP AND LLANESCA T. PANTI