Manila: A German couple kidnapped by militants were handed over to their embassy on Saturday after a six-month ordeal marked by constant threats of beheading, as the Philippines confronted a security threat it thought it had overcome.
Officials said a private plane flew Stefan Okonek, in his 70s, and his partner Henrike Dielen, in her 50s, to Manila from the southern port of Zamboanga at dawn after Abu Sayyaf gunmen released them late Friday.
“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,” President Benigno Aquino’s spokesman Herminio Coloma said in a statement.
The couple had been handed over to the German embassy in Manila, the Philippine military said.
The Abu Sayyaf released the couple on Friday as its deadline for the German government to pay a $5.6 million ransom and withdraw its support for US offensives against militants in Syria and Iraq lapsed.
Philippine authorities said the two hostages were snatched at sea on April 25 as they sailed near the western Philippine island of Palawan.
During their captivity, believed spent mostly on the remote southern island of Jolo, the kidnappers systematically used the press and social media to threaten the hostages’ lives and force Berlin to pay up.
They forced the couple to beg for their lives in telephone calls to a local radio station as well video clips uploaded on the Internet.
In one Okonek stared up from a hole in the ground that he said he was told would become his grave. In another he screamed in pain as his kidnappers hit him repeatedly on the head.
The kidnappers, a notorious band of militants with links to Al Qaeda but who recently pledged alliance to the IS group in Iraq and Syria, claimed they collected “no more, no less” than their ransom demand.
Filipino officials said they could not confirm this.
But Rex Robles, a retired Philippine intelligence officer, said it was inconceivable that the Abu Sayyaf would set the hostages free without a ransom.
“I’m disappointed because that will only encourage them,” he told AFP, adding that the money was expected to “go into more equipment” such as guns and boats to boost their terror activities.
Labelled a terrorist group by the United States and Philippines, 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 and claims it is fighting to establish an independent Islamic homeland in the populated south of the Philippines.
Deadly bombings, including of a ferry that left 116 dead on Manila Bay 10 years ago, and kidnapping of dozens of foreign aid workers, missionaries and tourists in the south are its main signatures.
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.
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 defeat the Abu Sayyaf.
The US presence was scaled down this year on grounds the security threat has evolved into a law enforcement problem. But the militants maintain deep roots amongst clannish poors.
While threatening on Saturday to launch an offensive against the German couple’s kidnappers, the Philippine military conceded the risk of civilians getting hit was high.
“The Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines has emphasised that civilians should not be harmed. They (Abu Sayyaf) are hiding amongst civilians,” military spokesman Major-General Domingo Tutaan told reporters.
In July, a video appeared on YouTube in which one of the Abu Sayyaf’s leaders pledged allegiance to the IS 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.
It is believed to be holding at least 13 other hostages, including five foreigners, the Philippine military said.