ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AFP) - Philippine police said Tuesday they had arrested two Islamic militants involved in the high-profile kidnappings of an Australian and two Americans, just days after one of their leaders was captured.
The two members of the Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group were caught in a raid on Monday at a fishing village about 30 minutes' drive from Zamboanga on Mindanao island, one of the biggest cities in the southern Philippines, local police said.
Jimmy Nurilla and Bakrin Haris are members of an Abu Sayyaf cell that has kidnapped foreigners and locals in recent years, Major Ariel Huesca, head of Zamboanga's anti-terror unit, told reporters.
He said they were involved in the kidnapping of Australian Warren Rodwell, who was released in March last year after 15 months' captivity in the remote jungles and farmlands of the south that are the Abu Sayyaf's strongholds. The militants had initially demanded $2 million for Rodwell's release, but are believed to have settled for far less.
Huesca said the captured men were also involved in the kidnappings of American Gerfa Yeatts Lunsmann and her then 14-year-old son, Kevin, from a resort island close to Zamboanga in 2011. They were released after several months but it was unclear if a ransom was paid.
Huesca said Monday's police and military raid was initially aimed at capturing the two men's direct leader, who was in charge of the kidnap gang. But he evaded arrest.
Huesca said the kidnap-for-ransom cell was under the overall responsibility of Khair Mundos, one of the Abu Sayyaf's top leaders, who was arrested in Manila on Wednesday last week. Mundos had a $500,000 US government bounty on his head. He was regarded as one of the key financiers of the Abu Sayyaf with direct links to Islamic militant groups overseas and had led other kidnappings.
Huesca and other police who briefed reporters on the latest arrests did not say if Mundos had provided the intelligence for Monday's raid. The Abu Sayyaf, founded in the 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network, is blamed for the worst terrorist attacks in the Philippines' recent history. This includes the bombing of a ferry in Manila in 2004 that killed more than 100 people.
However the Abu Sayyaf is believed to have just a few hundred militants, and operates mainly in lawless parts of the southern Philippines that have majority Muslim populations. While it espouses a jihadist agenda, authorities regard most of its members as bandits mainly concerned with lucrative kidnappings-for-ransom.