Abu Sayyaf militants freed an Indonesian captive after kidnapping the sailor at sea off eastern Malaysia and taking him to the nearby southern Philippines four months ago, Filipino military officials said Wednesday.
Samsul Saguni and another Indonesian had been seized from a fishing boat in waters off Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo, and brought to Jolo, an island in the far south of the Philippines that is a known stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).
Saguni was freed Tuesday and retrieved by the military and local officials led by the local governor, Abdul Sakur Tan, somewhere on the outskirts of Maimbung, a town on Jolo island, regional military spokesman Lt. Col. Gerry Besana said.
“He was brought to the residence of Tan, and, upon checking his health by our physicians, it turned out he is physically healthy,” Besana said. The former hostage was airlifted to a military camp in Zamboanga City for debriefing, he said.
Saguni and his companion, Usman Yunos, were on a fishing vessel when Abu Sayyaf militants boarded the boat and abducted them at gunpoint on Sept. 11, 2018. Yunos managed to escape from his captors in mid-December, officials said.
Indonesia: ‘there was no ransom’
The circumstances surrounding Saguni’s release were not immediately clear, and it was unclear whether officials had paid a ransom for his release.
Indonesia’s consul general in Sabah, Krishna Djelani, confirmed the development and said Saguni had been “rescued.”
“Indonesian hostage, Samsul Saguni, was rescued through the efforts of former Sulu Governor and the Philippines Army,” Djelani said, adding that the former hostage was taken to the Philippine military’s Western Mindanao Command in nearby Zamboanga city.
In Jakarta, an official with the Foreign Ministry confirmed that Saguni had been released.
“There was no ransom,” Lalu Muhammad Iqbal, who directs an office that oversees the protection of Indonesians overseas, told BenarNews.
The Philippines had “provided strong support” in efforts to free Saguni and other Indonesians who had been freed from militant custody earlier, he added.
The Indonesian official also confirmed that Saguni was the man shown in an online video that went viral after being circulated on social media earlier this month. In the video, a shirtless man, whose hands are bound behind his back, kneels in a pit and pleads for his life as gunmen stand above him.
The abduction of the two Indonesian sailors in September took place more than a year after the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia launched trilateral naval patrols along their common maritime boundaries. The idea was to stop militants from carrying out adductions on the high seas, following a spate of such kidnappings.
But a report published last week by the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) cast doubt on the effectiveness of trilateral patrols.
“None of these measures will stop terrorism or kidnapping in the Sulu-Sulawesi sea,” IPAC said, adding that the three neighboring countries should be “realistic” about the threat posed by terrorists along shared waterways.
On Wednesday, however, Indonesia’s defense chief said the patrols had gone a long way in safeguarding sailors as well as protecting shipping and commerce between the three nations.
“If the water is not guarded, [the ships] would not arrive safely, [they] would have been hijacked,” Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu told reporters in Jakarta.
“The proof shows that trade continues. If we don’t patrol, there would be hijackings, hostage takings and the hijackers would ask for ransom,” he said.
ASG: Small but brutal
Meanwhile in the southern Philippines, the Abu Sayyaf Group still holds five foreigners and three Filipinos as hostages in their highly impenetrable, jungle-clad base in Jolo, army regional chief Lt. Gen. Arnel Dela Vega said.
“Our Joint Task Force Sulu is committed in rescuing captives of the Abu Sayyaf and in ending the terrorist group’s kidnap and ransom activities,” Dela Vega said.
Last month, President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the deployment of additional forces to Jolo, bringing to 10,000 the number of troops concentrated in the region, in his aim to crush the Abu Sayyaf, a small group numbering between 300 and 500 fighters.
In May 2017, senior Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, the emir of the Islamic State (IS) in the Philippines, led an audacious attack take-over of southern Marawi city, in a siege that lasted five months. He and other top leaders were killed in October 2017, toward the end of the siege.
While Hapilon’s faction led the battle against government forces in Marawi, other Abu Sayyaf groups remained in the islands of Basilan and Jolo, where they continued with terrorist activities.
Founded in the early 1990s, Abu Sayyaf is notorious for kidnappings, bombings and beheading in southern Philippines over the past decade. The United States blacklisted the group as a foreign terrorist organization.
ASG is the smallest, but considered the most brutal, of several armed groups that operate in the restive Philippine south. Three years ago, Abu Sayyaf beheaded two Canadian hostages and a German captive after their governments refused to pay ransoms.
Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata contributed to this report from Jakarta.