MANILA - 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 on Saturday (June 22) from a task force hunting militants said a patrol team spotted the men walking along the road in Talipao town, Sulu province, on Friday.
The nine men were later identified as those taken from a fishing boat by the Abu Sayyaf on 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," the Joint Task Force Sulu said in its report.
Philippine security officials had identified the nine men, aged between 17 and 60, as Malaysians. But Sabah police chief Omar Mammah said they were Bajau Laut, 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. They 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, from Groningen in the Netherlands, died while trying to flee during an early-morning gunbattle 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 gunbattle between soldiers and his captors.
The last Malaysian to be abducted, fisherman Jari bin Abdullah, 24, was rescued in April, but later died from his wounds.