Freed Australian hostage thankful, happy

by Jason Gutierrez, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Mar 25 2013 09:55 PM | Updated as of Mar 26 2013 05:55 AM

MANILA - Ex-Australian soldier Warren Rodwell said Monday he had lost all hope during 15 months as a captive of Islamic militants in the southern Philippines, as he thanked everyone who helped win his freedom.

Rodwell, his cheeks deeply hollowed out from severe weight loss, appeared extremely frail but was still able to smile as he met with Filipino officials at Manila airport who were involved in negotiating his release on Saturday.

"There was a great sense of helplessness and hopelessness and I am certainly overwhelmed," Rodwell told reporters at Manila airport after meeting the officials, speaking in a very soft voice apparently because of his frailness.

"I couldn't know the amount of effort and compassion that has been put into this operation."

Rodwell, 54, offered his "heartfelt thanks" to the Philippine and Australian governments as well as unnamed officials who worked behind the scenes to free him.

"I am very happy to be released and to be here," said Rodwell, who said he was already starting to feel better.

"I'm getting stronger," he said, smiling weakly.

Armed men posing as police abducted Rodwell from his home in a coastal town of the southern Philippines in December, 2011, and demanded $2 million for his safe release.

The kidnappers, members of the Abu Sayyaf militant group, kept him in lawless areas of the southern Philippines where they could roam freely with the support of local Muslim communities.

They had released a series of video clips of Rodwell while he was in their captivity that showed him becoming progressively gaunt.

In the last video, apparently taken in January, masked men carrying M-16 automatic rifles and belts of ammunition threatened to kill Rodwell as he sat with his hands bound by rope.

Rodwell was released after the payment of a ransom that one of the chief negotiators, local politician Al Rashid Sakalahul, said was four million pesos (nearly $100,000).

Rodwell on Monday personally thanked Sakalahul, the vice governor of the southern Basilan island that is one of the Abu Sayyaf's strongholds, who travelled to Manila airport on Monday to greet him.

Sakalahul told reporters that Rodwell's Filipina wife and relatives feared the militants were only days away from executing him if the ransom money had not been paid.

"The family told me they were told by the Abu Sayyaf, he (Rodwell) was scheduled for execution on Easter Sunday," Sakalahul said.

The Abu Sayyaf, designated by the US government as a terrorist organisation, has a long history of kidnapping foreigners and local businessmen in efforts to extort ransoms.

The militants, who are believed to be holding at least three other foreigners, have survived efforts lasting more than a decade by Filipino and US troops to eliminate them in large part because of the local community support.

The group is believed to have only a few hundred armed followers.

Rodwell's older sister and brother, who flew into Manila to be reunited with him, earlier Monday also thanked the Philippine government, while calling for his captors to be brought to justice.

"We wish the Philippine police every success in tracking down the group that took Warren from his home," Rodwell's sister, Denise Cappello, told reporters.

"We hope they will be brought to justice so others won't have to experience what Warren has just been through."

Rodwell flew to Manila on Monday after spending two days recuperating at a military base in the southern Philippines.

The head of the national police force's anti-kidnapping unit, Senior Superintendent Renato Gumban said Rodwell was scheduled to rest for one or two weeks in Manila, before undergoing a thorough debriefing.

He said Rodwell, who had been living with his wife in the southern Philippines for less than a year before he was kidnapped, then intended to return to Australia.