MESSAGES of thanks are rolling in for the Philippine government and President Rodrigo Duterte after months of negotiation and weeks of fighting with Abu Sayyaf militants finally paid off last weekend with the release of four hostages – three Indonesians and a Norwegian.
The first message of thanks came from Kjartan Sekkingstad, the Norwegian resort manager who spent nearly a year in captivity after he was nabbed along with three others from Samal island last September.
“Thank you to President Duterte,” were Sekkingstad’s precise words, according to an Inquirer report.
The Norwegian, who appeared gaunt and frail in photographs documenting his release, reportedly passed the message along to Duterte via a phone conversation with Philippine Peace Process adviser Jesus Dureze on Saturday.
According to reports over the weekend, Sekkingstad was freed Saturday afternoon and handed over to rebels from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which has inked a peace deal with the Philippine government to help negotiate the release of Abu Sayyaf hostages.
Inclement weather delayed initial plans to fly Sekkingstad out of the Sulu province in the Philippines’ restive south, and he reportedly had to spend the night at MNLF’s camp in Patikul.
In the early hours of Sunday morning, the Abu Sayyaf freed three more hostages – Indonesians Lorens Koten, 34; Theodorus Kopong, 42; and Emanuel Arakain, 46, who were abducted in July while fishing off the coast of Malaysia’s Sabah state. Like Sekkingstad, the three were handed over to the MNLF in Sulu.
All four released captives were on Sunday afternoon turned over by MNLF chair Nur Misuari to Dureza and former Sulu vice governor Abdusakur Tan in Indanan, Sulu. Sekkingstad left Sulu at 2.40pm for Davao City where he was brought to meet with Duterte personally while the three Indonesians were sent to Zamboanga City.
In a statement on the Norwegian government’s website, Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg expressed gratitude to Duterte and other Philippine leaders for negotiating Sekkingstad’s release, and voiced support for the government’s ongoing fight against terrorism in the country’s south.
“I would like to extend special thanks to President Rodrigo Duterte and the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, Jesus Dureza, for their commitment to resolving the situation.
“We support the Philippines in its struggle against terrorism and for peaceful progress in the south,” she said.
She also offered thanks to all other parties that had assisted in providing expertise in Sekkingstad’s case, noting that the authorities in both Norway and the Philippines had worked closely on the matter.
Solberg noted, however, that although Sekkingstad’s case had been successful, his two companions – Canadians John Risdel and Robert Hall – had not been so lucky. Both men were beheaded by their captors this year – Risdel in April and Hall in June – when they were unable to meet ransom demands.
“It is important to remember that two Canadian nationals were killed in this hostage action,” she said. “The violence committed against innocent people by the terrorist organisation Abu Sayyaf can only be met with our condemnation and disgust.”
“Our thoughts and sympathies therefore go out today to all the victims of terrorism in the Philippines.”
It is not immediately known if ransom money had been paid to secure the release of Sekkingstad and the three Indonesians although Philippine government officials insist this did not happen.
Like Norway, the Indonesian government also thanked Duterte and his government for the release of its nationals.
According to CNN Philippines, Indonesian Defence Minister Riyamizard Ruacudu, who was present to meet the freed Indonesian victims at the Western Mindanao Command late Sunday, expressed gratitude on behalf of his government.
The report said the minister thanked Duterte, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and mentioned the participation of the MNLF in negotiations.
Riyamizard also reportedly mentioned the likelihood of joint cooperation by Indonesian and Philippine governments in security and border patrol matters.
Abu Sayyaf and its dwindling forces have been on the run for weeks in Sulu and Basilan in southern Philippines after the army launched a major offensive on the terror network on Duterte’s orders.
The president had instructed Philippine security forces to neutralize the group after a local villager was beheaded last month when his family was too poor to pay ransom.