PAGADIAN, Philippines: Islamic militants in the Philippines have released Australian Warren Rodwell, 15 months after kidnapping him from his home in the south of the country, the military said on Saturday.
“Warren Rodwell has been released in Pagadian city. It is confirmed and he is now (in) the custody of the police in Pagadian city,” regional military commander Lieutenant General Rainier Cruz told AFP.
Pagadian is about 100 kilometres (60 miles) east of Ipil, the southern Philippine town where Rodwell had been living with his Filipina wife before he was kidnapped on December 5, 2011.
A photo and short video taken by a journalist at the police station early Saturday showed a gaunt but smiling Warren Rodwell, aged in his 50s, sitting alongside two policemen.
In the video, Rodwell takes off a blue T-shirt and stands up to show off his body, smiling as he points to his ribs and says: “lose weight”.
The kidnappers, members of the Abu Sayyaf militant group, had previously released a series of video clips of Rodwell as proof he was still in their custody.
In one of the videos, Rodwell said his captors were demanding US$2 million in ransom. It was unclear Saturday if any ransom money was paid for his release.
The Abu Sayyaf is one of many armed Islamist groups operating in the southern Philippines, which has been home to a deadly Muslim separatist insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives since the 1970s.
It is believed to have only a few hundred militants but has been blamed for the worst terror attacks in recent Philippine history, and has a long history of kidnapping foreigners, Christians and local business people for ransom.
Rodwell settled in Ipil with his Filipina wife, Miraflor Gutang, in 2011, according to local authorities. The former soldier had worked as a teacher in China before marrying Gutang, whom he met on the Internet.
Many foreign governments warn their citizens to avoid the violence-plagued parts of the southern Philippines, including Ipil, because of the high risk of kidnappings.
The Abu Sayyaf was set up in the troubled region in the early 1990s with funding from the Al-Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden and was initially led by a Filipino militant who fought against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
About 600 US Special Forces troops have been rotating in the southern Philippines since 2002, assigned to train Filipino counter-terrorism troops and in how to quash groups like Abu Sayyaf.
However the US forces are not allowed to engage in combat, unless in self-defence when attacked.
Al Rashid Sakalahul, the vice governor of the southern island of Basilan who negotiated with the Abu Sayyaf for Rodwell’s release, told AFP the militants called him up to confirm the hostage was freed in Pagadian.
“Thank God that our problem has been solved. I did what I had to do. I’ve done my part, my duty and my responsibility as an elected official in Basilan,” he said.
Sakalahul would not say if ransom money was paid, insisting he merely acted as an intermediary.
“Rodwell’s family directly negotiated with the kidnappers and I do not know if they paid ransom… my role was to get Rodwell out safely,” he said.