Four Malaysian sailors kidnapped off Sabah's coast on April 1 by Abu Sayyaf militants have been freed, the Philippine military said yesterday.
The victims were released early yesterday morning, Major Filemon Tan, spokesman for the Western Mindanao Command, said in a statement obtained by The Straits Times.
They were then taken to the coast of the southern Philippine province of Sulu, where they had been kept in captivity, and immediately boarded a speedboat to Sandakan town in Sabah, said the statement.
"Information received from ground units disclosed that the freed victims arrived in Sandakan at about 6am today," Maj Tan said. "We have yet to confirm whether ransom money was paid in exchange for the safe release of the victims."
The four sailors - brothers Wong Teck Kang, 31, and Wong Teck Chii, 29, their cousin, Johnny Lau Jung Hien, 21, and Wong Hung Sing, 34 - were working on a tugboat returning to Sarawak from the Philippines when they were seized.
Their captors reportedly demanded an RM18 million (S$6 million) ransom for their release.
Malaysia's The Star Online, citing new reports from Jolo, reported that Malaysian and Filipino negotiators managed to secure the sailors' release from the militant group after several rounds of negotiation.
A relative of two of the hostages held by Abu Sayyaf confirmed that all four sailors have been freed, The Star said.
"I was told that the four of them are in good health. Their family members are now in Sandakan waiting to receive them," she said.
Abu Sayyaf, known for kidnappings, beheadings, bombings and extortion, is one of the most hardline militant groups. Its strongholds are in the largely lawless Sulu archipelago, which is more than 1,000km south of the capital Manila.
In recent months, it has abducted dozens of foreigners in a bid to extort money. Before the Malaysian captives, it had released a total of 14 Indonesian sailors, in what is seen as a new tactic by the terrorist group to kidnap seamen for ransom.
In April, it beheaded a captive, a former mining executive from Canada, Mr John Ridsdel, after its ransom demands were not met.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called it "an act of cold-blooded murder". Philippine President-elect Rodrigo Duterte later apologised to Mr Trudeau for the killing.
Another Canadian, a Norwegian and a Filipino woman are still being held captive by the Abu Sayyaf, nine months after they were abducted from an upscale resort near Davao City, where Mr Duterte was mayor for two decades.
The Abu Sayyaf has given the Philippine and Canadian governments and families of the captives until 3pm on June 13 to pay 300 million pesos (S$8.8 million) for the release of each of the hostages.
The Abu Sayyaf leadership has pledged allegiance to terrorist organisation Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
To thwart more kidnappings of sailors by the group, the governments of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia have agreed to hold joint patrols in the seas of southern Philippines and north-east Sabah.