MANILA, Philippines (3rd UPDATE) - The two Filipinos kidnapped with Jordanian journalist Baker Atyani were released Saturday night, February 2, in Sulu, local and intelligence officials said Sunday, February 3.
The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) released at around 7 pm cameraman Ramil Vela and audio technician Roland “Buboy” Letrero on Jolo island, where they have been held since June last year, the officials said.
One said it was Vela who first called his wife Nina on the phone at 9:45 pm informing her that they had been released.
The exact circumstances of how the two were freed remained unclear, but regional police chief Noel delos Reyes said no ransom was paid.
“Shortly after they were freed they called their families from a hotel room in Jolo,” delos Reyes said. “They were then taken by authorities to the provincial hospital to be checked up.”
Delos Reyes said there was “no word” on the fate or exact whereabouts of Atyani of the Dubai-based Al Arabiya network.
A senior intelligence official however told Rappler that Atyani was still in the hands of the ASG.
News of the release of his crew reached Rappler Saturday night, but top officials refused to confirm it apparently hoping that the ASG would also free the journalist.
Kidnap victims’ ordeal
As they lay on their hospital beds, Vela and Letrero tearfully recounted their ordeal in the hands of the militants in Jolo's harsh jungle terrain, Jolo deputy provincial police chief Roy Gabor said.
Gabor quoted the two as saying, “we went through so much difficulty. We didn't know whether we would make it out alive.”
He described the pair as very emotional, and said they emerged from the jungle looking thin and with unkempt hair and beards.
“They were a bit confused. They said they were just told to leave the hostage lair,” Gabor said.
He said the two related that they were separated from Atyani on the 5th day of their captivity, and that they had not seen him since.
The gunmen gave them a horse because Vela could not walk due to a swollen leg, and both left the jungle hideout unescorted until they reached a highway.
They then rode a tricycle to Jolo's main port and went to a hotel and sought help, Gabor said. Officials told Rappler the two were picked up by police past 10 pm at Room 5 of ANR Hotel.
The men would soon fly back to Manila to be reunited with their families.
Vela and Letrero traveled with Atyani to Jolo island in June 2012 after they were locally hired in Manila by the Jordanian to film the militants.
They went missing a day after they arrived, and police subsequently said the 3 were held captive by the ASG -- a group of self-styled militants blamed for the country's worst terrorist attacks as well as other kidnappings.
The group was founded with seed money from Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network to fight for an independent Islamic state, though it later degenerated into a criminal gang.
US special forces have been rotating in the southern Philippine for over a decade to train local troops in crushing Abu Sayyaf which is on Washington's list of wanted foreign terrorist organizations.
At least 4 other foreign hostages are believed still held in the south by ASG and other militant outfits -- a Dutchman, a Swiss national, an Australian and a Japanese man.
Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr last month welcomed news that Warren Rodwell, 54, was alive after being held hostage for more than a year, but said his prolonged captivity was a “major concern.”
European birdwatchers, Dutchman Ewold Horn, 52, and Swiss national Lorenzo Vinciguerra, 47, were kidnapped on February 1 last year. The Japanese man, Toshio Ito, was seized in July 2010. – with reports from Glenda M. Gloria, Marites Vitug, Maria Ressa/Rappler.com; and Jason Gutierrez/Agence France-Presse