Philippine troops rescued a British man and his Filipina wife from Abu Sayyaf militants after a shootout with the extremists in the southern Philippines, ending the couple’s 53-day ordeal as hostages, the military said Monday.
Allan Arthur Hyrons, 70, and his wife, Wilma Paglinawan-Hyrons, were recovered after government forces killed six of their suspected abductors during a clash at the weekend near Parang town in Sulu, an island province in the south, the military said.
“It’s very frightening, it’s something you see in the movies … but in real life it’s terrifying,” Hyrons told reporters, describing the gunbattle that led to their rescue.
The couple were flown for medical tests to Zamboanga city, about 216 km (135 miles) north of Jolo, and later held a news conference. Both were declared in good condition.
“The captivity was very humiliating and degrading,” Hyrons told reporters, describing their captors as gunmen from the Abu Sayyaf. “First, they took away our jewelry, wedding rings and mementos of our bonding.”
He said they relieved themselves in a bowl, with the bandits keeping them out of the public eye.
At one point, the gunmen pointed a gun at his wife’s face and threatened to kill them if no ransom changed hands, Hyrons said.
One of the guards “even told me that he will be the one who will execute [us],” Wilma said.
She said she told them that they could not afford to pay ransom.
The couple were seized from a beach resort in Zamboanga del Sur province in early October by unknown gunmen, who took them by boat to Jolo. Military officials said last month that the abductors had demanded 50 million pesos (almost U.S. $1 million) in exchange for their freedom.
It could not be immediately determined if those who originally took them were Abu Sayyaf gunmen, although it is a common practice in the south that armed men pass on their kidnap victims to the extremists who would end up making monetary demands.
The military said Monday that no ransom had changed hands and that the two were recovered as a result of intense ground operations.
Security forces had been pursuing the Abu Sayyaf trail since Friday, Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, chief of the military’s Western Mindanao Command, told BenarNews.
Six of the suspected abductors, including one believed to be a senior militant and a conduit to the Islamic State, were killed and five soldiers were wounded in the gunfight, Sobejana said.
During the firefight, the militants abandoned the couple as they fled towards the jungle area, he said.
“Our soldiers rescued the victims and they were immediately evacuated to a safe place,” Sobejana said.
Maj. Gen. Corleto Vinluan Jr., head of the Joint Task Force Sulu and the 11th Infantry Division, told reporters that a series of clashes had pushed the Abu Sayyaf to an area where they were at a tactical disadvantage, forcing them to splinter into smaller units to avoid detection as they fled.
“They were apparently unaware that we were monitoring their movements and had already anticipated their actions,” Vinluan said, adding that the gunmen were apparently “overwhelmed” by the superior military force.
Among the gunmen killed in a series of clashes that began on Friday was Talha Jumsah (alias Abu Talha), believed by the military to be a liaison of the Islamic State group to the Abu Sayyaf under the command of Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan.
Sawadjaan, a little-known Abu Sayyaf commander, emerged into the limelight in January, after his unit helped two Indonesian suicide bombers attack a church on Jolo island, leaving 23 dead.
Sawadjaan took over as IS head in the Philippines from Isnilon Hapilon, who was killed two years ago after he led hundreds of fighters from Southeast Asia and the Middle East in taking over the southern city of Marawi.
An estimated 1,200 militant fighters, soldiers and civilians were killed there during a five-month battle with the military, but the Philippine government overwhelmed the militants with intelligence help from the United States and Australia.
Sobejana said that among the enemy killed during the weekend was Sibih Pisi, who was in charge of an Abu Sayyaf unit responsible for abductions in areas as far as Tawi-Tawi island as well as Sabah, a state in Malaysian Borneo.
Pisi has a pending of warrant of arrest on allegations of involvement in the killing of 22 civilians in Sulu sometime in 2014, military officials said.
The Abu Sayyaf Group is the smallest of several armed groups that operate in the restive south, but it is considered the most brutal one. Three years ago, Abu Sayyaf militants beheaded two Canadian hostages and a German captive after their governments refused to pay ransoms for their release.
Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales contributed to this report from Cotabato City.