Four Indonesian sailors abducted in April by Abu Sayyaf militants in the Philippines have been released, just over a week after the gunmen freed 10 other Indonesians in a separate incident.
"Finally, the four Indonesians being held hostage by the armed group have been freed. They are in good health," Indonesian President Joko Widodo told reporters at the state palace in Jakarta yesterday.
The men are in the custody of the Philippine authorities and will be handed over to Indonesia soon, he said. He thanked the Philippine government for providing "very good cooperation in both releases".
The four men were among a crew of 10 manning the tugboat TB Henry that was hijacked by the Abu Sayyaf as it was sailing from Cebu in the Philippines to Tarakan in North Kalimantan on April 15. The Malaysian authorities rescued the other six.
The Philippine military's spokesman, Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla, said Sulu provincial officials turned over the hostages to a task force hunting the notorious Abu Sayyaf group at 2pm. "Arrangements are now being finalised for the handover of the Indonesian nationals to the Indonesian authorities," he said in a statement.
Mr Joko did not mention if any ransom was paid to the militants, but said the release was "one of the outcomes of a meeting" of foreign ministers and military commanders from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines on naval security last Thursday.
At that meeting, the parties agreed to launch coordinated patrols and set up crisis centres in their respective countries to better respond to emergencies in piracy- prone areas in the Sulu and Sulawesi seas. A dedicated hotline will also be set up to enable faster exchange of information in times of crisis at sea.
The spate of hostage-taking has raised alarm in South-east Asia that the Abu Sayyaf is employing a new tactic of abducting sailors for ransom in the seas of southern Philippines and north-east Sabah.
A ransom of 50 million pesos (S$1.4 million) was believed to have been paid in the earlier May 1 release of the 10 Indonesians, who were abducted by the militants on March 29 as they were sailing to Batangas in the southern Philippines.
Six days before their release, the extremists beheaded Canadian John Ridsdel, 68, a former mining executive and journalist.
Four Malaysians, another Canadian, a Norwegian and a Filipino woman are also believed to be held by the terror group known for kidnappings, beheadings, bombings and extortion.