PAGADIAN, Philippines (5th UPDATE) – The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) has released Australian Warren Rodwell, 15 months after kidnapping him from his home in Zamboanga Sibugay, the military said on Saturday, March 23.
As of posting, Rodwell, 56, is at the Camp Navarro hospital inside the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
From the hospital, he will be turned over to his family and officials of the Australian embassy, Westmincom spokesman Rodrigo Gregorio said in a statement.
The ASG released Rodwell at the port area in Pagadian City. He was rescued around 1:30 a.m. in a joint operation by the provincial police and the 1st Infantry Division of the AFP.
Pagadian is about 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of Ipil, the southern Philippine town where Rodwell had been living with his Filipina wife before he was kidnapped on Dec 5, 2011.
From Pagadian City, Rodwell was airlifted by a helicopter and brought to the Westmincom.
Rodwell was taken from his residence in Ipil, Zamboanga Sibugay by 6 unindentified men using 3 motorcycles. Before his release, he was transferred to different locations in Basilan and Sulu.
“His release was made possible through the collective efforts of Rodwell’s family, the Australian embassy, the LGUs, AFP, PNP, and other government agencies,” said Gregorio.
A photo and short video taken by a journalist at the police station early Saturday showed a gaunt but smiling Warren Rodwell, sitting alongside two policemen.
In the video, Rodwell takes off a blue T-shirt and stands up to show off his body, smiling as he points to his ribs and says: “lose weight.”
Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte said, “Our primary concern was to ascertain that Mr Rodwell would receive immediate medical attention. Presently his medical condition is being assessed and as soon as the doctors give clearance, we hope that he will be reunited with his family at the soonest possible time.”
Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr on Saturday welcomed the release of Rodwell, congratulating the Philippines on its handling of the case.
“The Philippines government had the lead role in this case and deserve congratulations for their tireless efforts on Mr Rodwell’s behalf,” Carr said in a statement after the Abu Sayyaf released Rodwell.
“I’m advised Mr Rodwell is now in the company of Philippines authorities, our deputy ambassador Andrew Byrne and a representative of the Australian Defense Force and will be moved to a safe location,” Carr said.
Carr said all Australians would be wishing Rodwell well as he recovers from his 15 months in captivity.
“This is great news for Mr Rodwell and his family,” Carr said.
“The Rodwell family has shown enormous courage throughout this ordeal. The focus now is on Mr Rodwell’s speedy recovery.”
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gilliard also told a press conference she welcomed the release of Rodwell. “Our thoughts are with Warren Rodwell on this day of his release, and with his family. I know that his family is keen to ensure that their privacy is respected at this time, and I am sure that our friends from the media will do that. But I think all Australians will be very pleased to hear this news and delighted on behalf of the Rodwell family.”
Gilliard also said Rodwell’s family has shown a “great deal of courage and stoicism in what has been a tremendously difficult situation.”
In one of the videos, Rodwell said his captors were demanding US$2 million in ransom. It was unclear Saturday if any ransom money was indeed paid for his release.
It was in late December 2012, that a proof of life video was released by the Abu Sayyaf. At the time, they had already demanded a P1-million ransom but raised it to $2 million by early 2012.
Also in December 2012, a Facebook account shared the same video with this message: “Attention!!!! … Warren Rodwell Australian kidnapped victim.” It provided a mobile number saying, “He is in need of help.”
It marked the first time that kidnappers used social media for ransom payments.
Al Rasheed Sakkalahul, the vice governor of the southern island of Basilan who negotiated with the Abu Sayyaf for Rodwell‘s release, told AFP the militants called him up to confirm the hostage was freed in Pagadian.
“Thank God that our problem has been solved. I did what I had to do. I’ve done my part, my duty and my responsibility as an elected official in Basilan,” he said.
Sakkalahul would not say if ransom money was paid, insisting he merely acted as an intermediary.
“Rodwell’s family directly negotiated with the kidnappers and I do not know if they paid ransom… my role was to get Rodwell out safely,” he said.
The Abu Sayyaf is one of many armed Islamist groups operating in the southern Philippines, which has been home to a deadly Muslim separatist insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives since the 1970s.
It is believed to have only a few hundred militants but has been blamed for the worst terror attacks in recent Philippine history, and has a long history of kidnapping foreigners, Christians and local business people for ransom.
Rodwell settled in Ipil with his Filipina wife, Miraflor Gutang, in 2011, according to local authorities. The former soldier had worked as a teacher in China before marrying Gutang, whom he met on the Internet.
Many foreign governments warn their citizens to avoid the violence-plagued parts of the southern Philippines, including Ipil, because of the high risk of kidnappings.
The Abu Sayyaf was set up in the troubled region in the early 1990s with funding from the Al-Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden and was initially led by a Filipino militant who fought against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
About 600 US Special Forces troops have been rotating in the southern Philippines since 2002, assigned to train Filipino counter-terrorism troops and in how to quash groups like Abu Sayyaf.
However the US forces are not allowed to engage in combat, unless in self-defense when attacked. – with reports from Cai Ordinario and Agence France-Presse