Pro-Islamic State (IS) Abu Sayyaf extremists have freed two policewomen after intensified manhunt operations, more than two weeks after they were held captive on the southern Philippine island of Jolo, authorities said Wednesday.
National police chief Director General Oscar Albayalde said junior officers Benierose Alvarez and Dina Gumahad were released separately in the town of Patikul with the help of local officials who volunteered to negotiate on their behalf.
It was not clear whether ransom has been paid to secure their freedom, which came shortly before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan is to be celebrated in the predominantly Catholic nation.
“Yes, as we speak now this afternoon, the report from our police is that they were released and now in the hands of the governor of Sulu,” Albayalde told reporters, referring to Gov. Sakur Tan.
“The intervention of local officials helped and I think they were released because Ramadan is approaching,” he said.
Alvarez and Gumahad, along with two other civilians, were taken at gunpoint while they were travelling onboard a motorbike on April 29. The two civilians were released unharmed and officials would not say whether money changed hands.
The Philippines has a strict no-ransom policy, but the victims’ families have often gone around this by saying that they had forked over “board and lodging” expenses to the Abu Sayyaf captors.
Chief Superintendent Billy Beltran, the regional police head, said Alvarez was left by his kidnappers before noon Wednesday near the village of Samak in Talipao town, a stronghold of the gunmen. Gumahad was freed on Tuesday.
Beltran said they were checking if the families of the captives paid ransom money in exchange for their freedom. The Abu Sayyaf had demanded a ransom equivalent to about U.S. $96,000 for the two but the government had rejected this and instead launched attacks.
At least 15 Abu Sayyaf militants and two soldiers have been killed during firefights in the past two weeks, officials said.
The Abu Sayyaf is the smallest, but the most brutal of militant groups operating in the southern Philippines. It has been engaged in banditry, kidnapping and bombings.
The group beheaded a German hostage last year, while two Canadians suffered the same fate the previous year. They are still holding captive 12 hostages in the south, including three Indonesians, one Vietnamese, one Dutch and seven Filipinos, the military has said.
One of the senior leaders of Abu Sayyaf, Isnilon Hapilon, had pledged allegiance to the IS and led a siege of the southern city of Marawi last year, leaving 1,200 people dead, most of them militants.
The five-month siege ended in October with the death of Hapilon, although the government said dozens of militants had escaped.