Philippine security forces have found nine men abducted in waters off Sabah's east coast last week by bandits linked to the Abu Sayyaf extremist group.
A report yesterday from a task force hunting militants said a patrol team spotted the men walking along a road in Talipao town, Sulu province, last Friday.
The men were later identified as those taken from a fishing boat by the Abu Sayyaf last Tuesday. They are all believed to be Bajau Laut, a community of sea gypsies who are mostly without documents.
"They were released by their captors since they have no money or anything to give as ransom," Joint Task Force Sulu said in its report.
Philippine security officials had identified the men, aged between 17 and 60, as Malaysians.
But Sabah police chief Omar Mammah said they were Bajau Laut, and not Malaysians.
The Bajau Laut community is a subgroup of the Sama-Bajau people who traditionally hail from the many islands of the Sulu archipelago in the Philippines. Most of them are stateless and live at sea off Lahad Datu and Semporna.
Some of those abducted are believed to possess Lepa-Lepa cards.
These cards, purportedly signed and issued by village chiefs, are a form of recognition for their existence, allowing them to live at sea in Malaysian waters.
These are not legal identification documents as they are not recognised by the authorities.
The Abu Sayyaf officially has a separatist, Islamist agenda, but it has capitalised on decades of instability in the war-torn southern Philippine island of Mindanao to generate tens of millions of dollars from piracy and ransom payments.
The militants prowl waters separating Sulu and Sabah in search of tourists and fishermen.
A number of Malaysians had been taken as hostages. One of them, engineer Bernard Then, was beheaded in 2015.
The last of the Abu Sayyaf's foreign hostages, Dutchman Ewold Horn, 59, died while trying to flee during an early morning gun battle in the jungles of Sulu's mountainous Patikul town on May 31.
Mr Horn was abducted with Swiss Lorenzo Vinciguerra, 53, during a bird-watching expedition in Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines' southernmost province, in February 2012. Mr Vinciguerra managed to escape in 2014 during a gun battle between soldiers and his captors.