Abu Sayyaf extremists free Norwegian hostage in Philippines
Philippine military officials say a Norwegian hostage has been freed by Abu Sayyaf militants who had beheaded two Canadian captives and freed a Filipino woman kidnapped with him in a southern marina last year.
The officials say Kjartan Sekkingstad was freed Saturday afternoon in Sulu province after a year of jungle captivity and was eventually secured by troops and turned over to officials.
The Canadians, Robert Hall and John Ridsdel, were beheaded after huge ransom demands were not met and the woman was freed before President Rodrigo Duterte came to power on June 30.
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Ridsdel and Hall were abducted last September from a seaside resort, along with Sekkingstad and Marites Flor, a Filipina national.
Government forces launched a major offensive against the militants after the beheadings of the Canadians sparked condemnations from then-Philippine President Benigno Aquino III and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Hostage secured by rebel group
Sekkingstad was freed in Patikul town and was eventually secured by rebels from the larger Moro National Liberation Front, which has signed a peace deal with the government and helped negotiate his release, Philippine government officials said.
Sekkingstad was to stay overnight at the house of Moro National Liberation Front chairman Nur Misuari in Sulu and then be flown to the southern city of Davao on Sunday to meet with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, said Jesus Dureza, who advises Duterte on peace talks with insurgent groups.
A plan to fly the freed hostage out of Sulu, a jungle-clad Muslim region about 950 kilometres south of Manila, on Saturday was scrapped because of bad weather, Dureza said.
Dureza said that when he spoke on the phone with Sekkingstad, the Norwegian expressed his gratitude to Duterte.
Not clear if ransom paid
It was not immediately clear whether Sekkingstad had been ransomed off. Duterte suggested in a news conference last month that 50 million pesos ($1 million US) had been paid to the militants, but that they continued to hold on to him. The military said Saturday that relentless assaults forced the extremists to release the hostage.
Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende confirmed Sekkingstad's release and said he was in contact with Dureza. Borge said he was told that Sekkingstad would be likely handed over to the Philippine authorities on Sunday.
"We are following the situation closely and are now working together with the Philippine authorities to bring Sekkingstad to safety," Brende said in a statement. "We continue to work on it and we will not rejoice before Sekkingstad is safe and sound with the Philippine authorities."
Sekkingstad fell ill while in captivity, according to a Philippine army officer who helped monitor the kidnapping.
"Under the intense pressure of focused military operations, the terrorist kidnap-for-ransom Abu Sayyaf group was constrained to release Sekkingstad, as holding him under custody slows down their continued movement," said military spokesman Col. Edgard Arevalo.