Questions lingered on Saturday on whether ransom was paid to the Abu Sayyaf for the two Germans the group had held for six months.
Stefan Viktor Okonek, 71, and Henrike Dielen, 55, were taken to the German embassy in Manila, hours after they were recovered by policemen near a checkpoint in Patikul, Sulu, late Friday.
Government officials said a private plane flew the two to Manila from Zamboanga City at dawn Saturday.
“With the release from captivity of the two German nationals, our security forces will continue efforts to stem the tide of criminality perpetrated by bandit elements,” presidential spokesman Herminio Coloma said in a statement.
Military officials insisted that the Abu Sayyaf were forced to free its captives because government troops were closing in on the group.
But Aboo Rami, who spoke for the Abu Sayyaf, told Radio Mindanao Network in Zamboanga City that they freed the hostages after ransom was paid.
The kidnappers had demanded P250 million for the Germans, and threatened to behead Okonek if the money was not delivered by last Friday. It also called on Berlin to cease all support to US coalition airstrikes against the jihadist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Sources in Sulu said a private jet delivered 12 trolley bags containing cash in Jolo and that several bags full of money had been left in the plane.
Maj. Gen. Domingo Tutaan, a spokesman for the Armed Forces, said the military “has no information on that (ransom payments) but suffice to say that the Armed Forces of the Philippines and other security forces do not and will not negotiate with terrorists and kidnappers.”
Coloma said “We are still trying to determine the details of their rescue. There is no change to the government’s ‘no ransom’ policy.”
Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc, the Armed Forces spokesman, branded as propaganda Rami’s claim that ransom was paid.
“That’s what he claims… but who paid the ransom?” Cabunoc said in a phone patch briefing with reporters.
The British news agency Reuters quoted a German government source that reported that Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had sent a special envoy to the Philippines to negotiate with the Abu Sayyaf.
The envoy, Ruediger Koenig, reportedly arrived in Manila Thursday night.
Okonek and Dielen were intercepted off Palawan by Abu Sayyaf gunmen on April 25 while sailing their yacht to Sabah in Malaysia.
Germany’s foreign ministry and the Philippine military confirmed the hostages had arrived at the embassy in Manila.
“We are relieved to confirm that the two Germans are no longer in the hands of their kidnappers. They are being taken care of at the embassy in Manila,” said a German foreign ministry spokesman.
During their captivity, the kidnappers who are notorious for cruelty used the press and social media to threaten the hostages’ lives and force Berlin to fork up the cash.
The couple were forced to beg for their lives in telephone calls to a local radio station as well as uploads of video clips on the Internet.
In one video clip, Okonek stood on a hole in the ground that he said he was told would become his grave. In another he screamed in pain as his kidnappers hit him repeatedly on the head.
The Western Mindanao Command said the police and military are ready to shift from law enforcement operations to tactical options if the special action committee of Sulu comes up with a resolution that would allow security forces to continue their pursuit of the Abu Sayyaf.
The military has deployed K9 units in Sulu to help ground troops search for at least seven other foreigners being held by the Abu Sayyaf.
Another Abu Sayyaf faction has threatened to kill Malaysian fish breeder Chan Sai Chuin, 32, who was kidnapped along with a Filipino worker on June 16 from a fish farm in the town of Kunak in Tawau District. The militants are demanding P41 million for the fish breeder.
It is also holding captive a Malaysian policeman Kons Zakiah Aleip, 26, who was seized on June 12 also this year following a clash in Sabah that killed another policeman. The militants are demanding P68.3 million.
The group is also holding a 64-year old Japanese treasure hunter Katayama Mamaito, who was kidnapped from Pangutaran Island in July 2010; and two European wildlife photographers Ewold Horn, 52, from Holland; and Lorenzo Vinciguerre, 47, from Switzerland, who were taken from the coastal village of Parangan in Panglima Sugala town in Tawi-Tawi in 2012.
The 1st Infantry Division has sent two battalions to Sulu, said Brigadier General Gerardo Barrientos Jr. A hundred Special Forces soldiers from Zamboanga City were also deployed to Sulu on October 8 to help ferret out the Abu Sayyaf.
The group is a loose band of a few hundred militants founded in the 1990s by Abdurajak Janjalani, an Islamic preacher and veteran of the Afghanistan war.
It was set up with seed money from Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law.
It has kidnapped dozens of foreign aid workers, missionaries and tourists in the south.
By ransoming off its hostages for millions of dollars the group was able to raise funds to buy more arms, and it cemented its brutal reputation by beheading some of its captives—including an American tourist seized in 2002.
WITH ANTHONY VARGAS AND AFP