Fears raised over safety of foreign hostages in Philippines after militants behead Canadian captive

Filipino policemen stand guard on the spot where the head of a hostage was dropped off in Jolo on April 25, 2016.
Filipino policemen stand guard on the spot where the head of a hostage was dropped off in Jolo on April 25, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

MANILA (AFP) - Islamic militants in the Philippines have beheaded a Canadian hostage, raising fears for more than 20 other foreigners held captive on remote islands, with troops and police vowing Tuesday (April 26) to hunt down the extremists.

The man's head was found Monday (April 25) dumped outside city hall on Jolo, a mountainous and jungle-clad island in the far south of the Philippines that is a stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf Islamist group.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Filipino authorities identified the victim as John Ridsdel, a retiree in his late 60s who was kidnapped seven months ago from aboard a yacht, along with another Canadian man, a Norwegian and a Filipina woman.

"This was an act of cold-blooded murder and responsibility rests with the terrorist group who took him hostage," Trudeau said in Ottawa.

The four were abducted at a marina near the major city of Davao, more than 500km from Jolo, as part of a wave of abductions by the Abu Sayyaf - a loose network of militants who for more than two decades have run a lucrative kidnapping-for-ransom business.

 
 

The other three were fellow Canadian Robert Hall, Hall's girlfriend Marites Flor and Norwegian resort manager Kjartan Sekkingstad.

Six weeks after the abduction, gunmen released a video of their hostages held in a jungle setting, demanding the equivalent of US$21 million (S$28 million) each for the safe release of the three foreigners.

The men were forced to beg for their lives on camera, and similar videos posted over several months showed the hostages looking increasingly frail.

In the most recent video, Ridsdel said his captors would kill him on April 25 if a ransom of US$6.4 million was not paid.

Hours after the deadline passed, police in the Philippines said two people on a motorbike dropped the head near city hall on Jolo, which is about 1,000km from Manila.

Ridsdel, a former journalist, oil executive and sailing enthusiast, had moved to the Philippines to manage a gold mine before retiring.

Trudeau said Canada was working with the Philippines to pursue and prosecute the killers, and that efforts were under way to obtain the release of the other hostages.

In the Philippines, security forces said they were setting up checkpoints across Jolo to try to block the movements of the gunmen.

"There will be no let-up in the determined efforts of the joint task group's intensive military and law enforcement operations to neutralise these lawless elements," said a statement released Tuesday by the national police and military.

Philippine security forces have made similar statements many times against the Abu Sayyaf and often failed to achieve their objectives.

On April 9, 18 Filipino soldiers were killed as they waged a day-long battle against Abu Sayyaf gunmen on Basilan, an island next to Jolo that is also one of the group's strongholds.

The Abu Sayyaf is a radical offshoot of a Muslim separatist insurgency in the south of the mainly Catholic Philippines that has claimed more than 100,000 lives since the 1970s.

Authorities say the group is currently holding more than 20 foreigners after a recent wave of abductions.

These include 18 Indonesian and Malaysian sailors who were abducted from tugboats near the southern Philippines over the past month.

The Abu Sayyaf is also believed to be holding a Dutch bird-watcher kidnapped in 2012, while it recently released a retired Italian priest after six months in captivity.

One of the Abu Sayyaf's biggest recent windfalls is believed to have come in 2014 when it claimed to have been paid more than US$5 million for the release of a German couple abducted from aboard their yacht in the southwest Philippines.

The Abu Sayyaf's leaders have recently declared allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group. However, analysts say it is mainly focused on ransom money.

"I don't see the Abu Sayyaf as an ideological threat," Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asian security expert based at the National War College in the United States, told AFP.

"But they use the threat of terror and the threat of being part of Islamic State to very effectively raise the psychological stakes."