MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf militants had threatened to kill an Australian hostage before his family paid a ransom to secure his freedom last week after 15 months of jungle captivity in the southern Philippines, a Filipino official said Monday.
Former Australian soldier Warren Richard Rodwell, 54, was released early Saturday in Pagadian city in southern Zamboanga del Sur province, emaciated and barely able to walk from his long captivity in the hands of the Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist group dreaded for beheading some of its hostages.
Al Rasheed Sakalahul, the vice governor of southern Basilan province who helped negotiate Rodwell's freedom, said Abu Sayyaf commander Puruji Indama agreed to release him after receiving 4 million pesos ($98,000) in ransom from the Australian's family on Thursday.
Sakalahul said he scrambled to help secure Rodwell's release because of his frail health, the possibility that he might die in crossfire and an Abu Sayyaf threat to kill the captive.
"If Rodwell was not released before the Holy Week, there was a threat to kill him," Sakalahul told reporters in Manila.
Rodwell was flown to Manila on Monday and thanked Sakalahul and police officials, along with the Philippine and Australian governments, for their efforts to save him.
"I'm sort of overwhelmed to know the amount of effort and compassion that were put into these operations," Rodwell told a news conference at the Manila airport. Asked how he was, Rodwell, who was limping, said, "I'm getting stronger."
Rodwell's sister Denise Cappello and brother Wayne Rodwell flew to Manila on Monday to meet him.
They read a family statement expressing hope that police could track down the kidnappers.
"We hope they will be brought to justice so others don't have to experience what Warren has just been through," they told a separate news conference.
Sakalahul, citing intelligence reports, said he suspected at least three armed groups were involved in the kidnapping. Working together, two separate criminal groups appeared to have abducted Rodwell on the Zamboanga Peninsula and held him there or on nearby islands, while the Basilan-based Abu Sayyaf negotiated for money. Basilan, where the Abu Sayyaf was founded in the 1990s, is a short boat ride from the Zamboanga Peninsula.
Rodwell is married to a Filipino woman whose cousin handed the ransom payment to Indama in Basilan's hinterland in Sakalahul's presence, the vice governor said.
Both the Australian and Philippine governments have strict policies of refusing to pay ransom. That left Rodwell's family to struggle to raise funds, including selling some of their properties, according to a report seen by The Associated Press.
"We don't encourage these ransom payments, but we can't stop the family from raising funds to save their loved one," Sakalahul said, expressing alarm at how different armed groups now appeared to be conspiring to carry out kidnappings.
After checking if the money was authentic, Indama counted the bundled bills and said he would order Rodwell freed. He even promised to return the money if the release was scuttled, Sakalahul said.
A Philippine military official who closely monitored the kidnapping said he 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, and a kidnap gang called the Al Khobar group collaborated in the kidnapping.
Over the last 15 months, Rodwell appeared in several proof-of-life videos posted by the militants. His jungle captivity appeared to have taken a toll on his health and he looked weaker in each video.
When his captors let him go from a motor boat in Pagadian, the still-dazed Rodwell plodded along a muddy coast until he was found by a villager, who asked if he was a tourist. He replied that he had just been freed by kidnappers and asked for help.
The Abu Sayyaf, which is on a U.S. list of terrorist organizations, is believed to be still holding two Europeans, a Jordanian journalist, a Malaysian and a Japanese treasure hunter on southern Jolo Island.
U.S.-backed Philippine military operations have in recent years eased attacks and terrorist activities waged by the Abu Sayyaf, which is estimated to have 350 fighters who have 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.
Associated Press writer Hrvoje Hranjski contributed to this report.