Abu Sayyaf frees 2 German hostages

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 17 2014 09:35 PM | Updated as of Oct 18 2014 10:55 PM

Listen to Abu Sayyaf spokesperson Abu Rami's interview with Radio Mindanao Network announcing the release of their two German hostages

MANILA (9th UPDATE) - The two German hostages released by the Abu Sayyaf Group are now in the custody of the German embassy following their arrival in Manila early morning on Saturday.

According to Major General Domingo Tutaan, spokesperson of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the plane carrying Stefan Okonek, 71, and Henrike Dielen, 55 arrived at the Villamor Airbase at 6:45 a.m.

Tutaan said the German embassy is making arrangements for their return home.

On Friday, Okonek and Dielen were released by the Abu Sayyaf Group at 8:50 p.m. in Patikul, Sulu.

Abu Sayyaf spokesperson Abu Rami, through a phone interview with a local radio station in Zamboanga City, said ransom was paid for their release.

But as to the amount of ransom paid, Abu Rami replied: "walang labis, walang kulang daw."

The two were then brought to a military camp in Busbos for a medical check-up.

They were later transported via navy vessel to Zamboanga City, and then flown to Manila.

The German foreign ministry thanked the Philippine government for its "close and trusting cooperation."

"We are relieved to be able to confirm that both Germans are no longer in the hands of their kidnappers," a spokeswoman said. "Both Germans are now in the care of staff of the embassy in Manila."

"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 Communications Operations Office (PCOO) Secretary Sonny Coloma said in a statement.

The hostages, captured by militants of the Abu Sayyaf group in April from a yacht on the high seas, were held in the interior of the remote island of Jolo, 600 miles (960 km) south of Manila.

German nationals Stefan Okonek (left) and Henrike Dielen (third from left) have been released by the Abu Sayyaf Group in Patikul, Sulu. Photo courtesy of the Naval Forces Western Mindanao

RANSOM

Al Kataib, a man who described himself as an associate of Abu Rami, said in a telephone call to reporters in Zamboanga City that the group got a portion of the P250 million ($5.56 million) they had demanded by Friday and "would not touch" the German they had threatened to behead.

He declined to say how much money they got, or give details about who had paid it.

Earlier in the day, a government official told Reuters that the German man had not been killed.

"The beheading will not happen," said the government source who declined to be identified.

The official, who was privy to the negotiations with the rebels, said about P60 million had been paid. The remainder would be delivered after more talks, the official said.

AFP public affairs office chief Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc, however, insisted that no ransom was paid to the Abu Sayyaf Group in exchange for the release of the two German nationals.

Cabunoc said the Abu Sayyaf released Okonek and Dielen following intensified security operations in Patikul and adjacent municipalities, where the group was believed to be hiding.

"I can say that they were forced to release the hostages after we conducted an intensified law enforcement operation yesterday," he told ANC.

"I don't believe ransom was paid. They were forced to release the hostages because they fear for their lives," he added.

But Tutaan, in a press conference later on Saturday, said they are still verifying reports of whether ransom was paid to secure the release of the hostages.

Tutaan, nonetheless, stood by government's no ransom policy.

"The Armed Forces of the Philippines or the government is not negotiating with terrorists," Tutaan said.

Coloma, likewise, said that "there is no change to the government's 'no ransom' policy."

German government sources told Reuters that Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had sent a special envoy to the Philippines to negotiate a deal.

The envoy, Ruediger Koenig, had arrived in Manila, the sources said on Thursday evening.

TERRORIST GROUP OR CRIMINAL GANG?

Labelled a terrorist group by the United States and Philippine governments, the Abu Sayyaf 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.

The Abu Sayyaf claims it is fighting to establish an independent Islamic homeland in the Muslim populated south of the mainly Catholic Philippines.

In July, a video appeared on Youtube in which one of the Abu Sayyaf's leaders, Isnilon Hapilon, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State extremists who have taken control of large parts of Iraq and Syria.

But Philippine authorities say the Abu Sayyaf is mainly a criminal gang interested in kidnappings-for-ransom and other lucrative illegal activities.

The Abu Sayyaf is also believed to still be holding two European birdwatchers, a Malaysian fish breeder and an elderly Japanese man.

Last year, the group released retired Australian soldier Warren Rodwell and Jordanian journalist Baker Atyani after ransoms were reportedly paid. The two were abducted separately and each held captive for over a year.

In 2007, the Abu Sayyaf killed 14 marines, 10 of whom were beheaded, after they ambushed a military convoy on Basilan island. The soldiers were on a mission to rescue a kidnapped Italian priest, who was later released.

The Abu Sayyaf was also blamed for the bombing of a ferry off Manila Bay in 2004 that killed 116 people, in what Philippine authorities described as the country's worst terrorist attack.

In the past 12 years, up to 600 US Special Forces troops on rotating deployments to the southern Philippines have trained Filipino troops in a bid to combat the Abu Sayyaf.

The military campaign has had some major successes, including the capture or killings of its top leaders.

But the Abu Sayyaf has survived the offensives by hiding among clannish Muslim communities on remote southern islands, and also replenishing personnel losses from the supportive local populations. -- with reports from Liezel Lacastesantos, ABS-CBN News Zamboanga; Edwin Sevidal and Jewel Reyes, dzMM; Reuters; Agence France-Presse

The German nationals released by the Abu Sayyaf Group in Sulu arrive at the Villamor Airbase. Photo courtesy of Philippine Air Force