MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Al-Qaida-linked militants in the southern Philippines on Saturday released an emaciated-looking Australian man near a coastal town where they kidnapped him for ransom 15 months ago.
Warren Richard Rodwell was brought to police by residents of Pagadian city who saw him walking before dawn near the fishing port, where his abductors dropped him off, said local police chief Julius Munez.
Rodwell “looked OK, just tired. But he looked like he lost a lot of weight,” Munez said.
In Washington where he is on a visit, Foreign Minister Bob Carr welcomed the news, saying the release was a joint effort by authorities in both countries, and that the focus now was on Rodwell’s speedy recovery.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard praised Rodwell’s family for showing “a great deal of courage and stoicism in what has been a tremendously difficult situation.”
“I think all Australians will be very pleased to hear this news and delighted on behalf of the Rodwell family,” she said.
Rodwell was taken by helicopter chartered by the U.S. military to the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force facility inside a Philippine military camp in Zamboanga city, about 880 kilometers (550 miles) south of Manila, said regional military spokesman Col. Rodrigo Gregorio.
The U.S. military unit provides counter-terrorism advice and training to Filipino troops fighting the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf group.
Philippine security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said a ransom was paid for Rodwell’s release, as was usually the case with other hostages held by the Abu Sayyaf over the last two decades.
The officials who dealt with the abduction said they suspected rogue members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a former Muslim secessionist group that signed a preliminary peace accord with the government last year, the Abu Sayyaf group and the Al Khobar criminal gang collaborated in detaining Rodwell and negotiating for a ransom.
The latest round of negotiations resumed last month and ended this week with the kidnappers agreeing to a payment of a few million pesos ($100,000). The kidnappers originally demanded $2 million, the officials said.
Both the Australian and Philippine governments have strict policies of refusing to pay ransoms. That left Rodwell’s family to struggle to raise funds, including selling some of their properties, according to an official confidential report seen by The Associated Press.
Rodwell, 54, a former Australian soldier who was married to a Filipino woman and had settled down in the southern Philippines, was kidnapped in December 2011 from his seashore house in Ipil township west of Pagadian and taken by speedboat to nearby mountainous islands where Abu Sayyaf militants are hiding.
He appeared in several proof-of-life videos posted by the militants as negotiations for his release dragged on. His jungle captivity appeared to have taken a toll on his health as he appeared weaker in each video.
He was one of several foreigners abducted by the Abu Sayyaf in the restive region. Two Europeans and a Jordanian journalist are still being held alongside a Japanese man.
Military officials said that Rodwell was held in recent months in the militants’ jungle hideouts on Basilan Island. Zamboanga del Sur, where he was released, is a short boat ride from Basilan.
The Abu Sayyaf is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. U.S.-backed Philippine military operations have crippled attacks and terrorist plots waged by about 350 militants, who split into several groups. But they remain a serious security threat in the impoverished region where minority Muslims have been fighting for self-rule for decades.