Philippine militants free three Indonesian hostages

Soldiers and local government officials escorting three Indonesian hostages at an army camp after they were released by Abu Sayyaf rebels in Jolo, Sulu province, on Oct 2, 2016.
Soldiers and local government officials escorting three Indonesian hostages at an army camp after they were released by Abu Sayyaf rebels in Jolo, Sulu province, on Oct 2, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

JOLO, Philippines (AFP) - Islamic militants in the Philippines have freed three Indonesian sailors abducted at sea, officials said, in the latest release by the Abu Sayyaf group after a kidnapping spree in the restive south.

The Abu Sayyaf handed over the three men on Jolo island to a major rebel group which then released them to authorities on Sunday (Oct 2), government peace negotiator Jesus Dureza said.

"The turnover was smooth and now the three will get a medical check-up and a debriefing before being turned over to an Indonesian representative," Dureza told AFP.

The three were part of a group of sailors abducted by the Abu Sayyaf in June, authorities said. The terms of the release were not disclosed, but the Abu Sayyaf typically releases hostages after hefty ransom payments are paid.

Indonesia's foreign minister Retno Marsudi also confirmed the three hostages - Ferry Arifin, Edi Suryono and Muhamad Mabrur Dahri - had been freed and would be handed over to a team from the Indonesian embassy.

Sunday's handover was the latest hostage release overseen by Nur Misuari, an elder Muslim rebel leader with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) group.

After a decades-long insurgency, the MNLF is currently engaged in peace talks with President Rodrigo Duterte. The Abu Sayyaf is not part of the peace process.

"These recent breakthroughs were a convergence of efforts that President Duterte initiated, getting the cooperation of the MNLF," Dureza said.

In mid-September, a Norwegian hostage kidnapped in 2015 and three other Indonesian seamen were handed over by the Abu Sayyaf to Misuari who then passed them on to the government.

A few days later, another kidnapped Indonesian sailor was freed through the MNLF.

Military sources say the Abu Sayyaf are still holding a Dutch hostage, five Malaysians, two Indonesians and four Filipinos in their jungle stronghold.

The militants beheaded two Canadian hostages earlier this year, after failing to collect a ransom.

The Abu Sayyaf is a loose network of militants formed in the 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network, and has earned millions of dollars from kidnappings-for-ransom.

While its leaders have in recent years pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, analysts say it is mainly focused on a lucrative kidnapping business rather than religious ideology.