A NORWEGIAN and three Indonesian seamen held hostage in Mindanao were turned over to a government envoy on Sunday after being freed by Abu Sayyaf bandits who had beheaded two captives earlier this year.
Kjartan Sekkingstad and the Indonesians, who had been held by Abu Sayyaf militants, were handed over to envoy Jesus Dureza in the town of Indanan on Jolo island, said an Agence France-Presse reporter at the scene.
The transfer took place at the heavily guarded camp of Muslim rebel leader Nur Misuari, whose group assisted in the release, according to the government.
“I am happy to be alive and free,” Sekkingstad said as he was assured by President Rodrigo Duterte that the government will soon bring his captors to justice.
Sekkingstad was abducted from a high-end tourist resort that he managed in September 2015, along with two Canadians who were later beheaded.
It was still unclear if the three freed Indonesians were the same ones kidnapped by armed men off a fishing trawler in Malaysian waters in July.
The Abu Sayyaf freed Sekkingstad on Saturday, handing him over to Misuari who is engaged in peace talks with the government and at whose camp he spent the night, Dureza said earlier.
Escorted by a small contingent of Jolo police, Dureza, Misuari, the freed captives and local officials met in a building surrounded by hundreds of Misuari’s fighters from the Moro National Liberation Front before leaving for a military camp, the reporter said.
The military has said that after a medical check-up and debriefing, Sekkingstad would fly to the southern city of Davao to be received by Duterte.
John Ridsdel and Robert Hall, the two Canadians seized with Sekkingstad, were beheaded after a ransom demand of about P300 million was not met. Ridsdel was murdered in April and Hall in June.
Duterte’s spokesman Martin Andanar said in Manila that “the government maintains the no-ransom policy.”
“Now, if there is a third party like his family that paid, we do not know anything about that,” he told reporters.
Norwegian foreign affairs communications chief Frode Andersen said “the Norwegian government does not pay ransom in this case or any other case.”
However, a spokesman for the Abu Sayyaf was quoted in a local newspaper on Sunday as saying the group received P30 million for the Norwegian.
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 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.
Brig. Gen. Resituto Padilla, Armed Forces spokesman, confirmed the release of the Indonesian nationals—Lorens Koten, Teodurus Kofung and a certain Emmanuel.
Hours after their release, the three Indonesians were brought to Camp Teodulfo Bautista Station Hospital where they underwent a medical exam and debriefing before they were turned over to Dureza.
They will be handed over to retired general Kivlan Zen of the Indonesian military.
It was unclear if a ransom was paid to obtain the release of the Norwegian and three Indonesians at a time when the military is putting intense pressure on the terrorist group.
At present, five Indonesians and five Malaysians, who were abducted by the ASG last week, are still being held captive, possibly in different bunkers in Patikul, Sulu.
The military announced simultaneous land, sea and air operations against the terrorist group.
Maj. Filemon Tan, spokesman of the Western Mindanao Command, said amphibious raids were launched on the islands of Pata and Kalinggalang Caluang in Sulu. Troops confiscated 15 unregistered motorized boats, Tan said.
Police also confiscated a motorized boat in Parang, Sulu that was believed to have been used in the kidnapping of Indonesian and Malaysian tugboat crews in the high seas fronting Tawi-Tawi in recent months.
On state-run radio dzRB, Andanar said no ransom was paid for the release of Sekkingstad.
“The government maintains a no-ransom policy when it comes to kidnappings,” Andanar said.
Andanar also said the intensified pursuit operations against the Abu Sayyaf will continue.
“Of course, this will continue, the war against terrorists. This will not stop,” Andanar said. With AFP, Sandy Araneta
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