MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A Jordanian journalist has identified the leader of an al-Qaida-linked terrorist group that held him for a year and a half in the jungles of the southern Philippines after luring him with a promise of an interview.
Appearing gaunt and bearded, TV journalist Baker Atyani was brought to a hospital in Sulu province under heavy guard after security forces took him into custody late Wednesday.
He said that Abu Sayyaf commander Jul Asman Sawadjaan plotted his kidnapping in June last year with the help of his fighters and civilians in the restive, predominantly Muslim southern province. Two Philippine security officers said authorities were verifying intelligence that Sawadjaan had died due to an illness before Atyani walked free.
Sawadjaan is one of the few surviving Abu Sayyaf commanders based in the jungles of Sulu's mountainous Patikul town. He has been linked to several abductions and attacks as part of the Abu Sayyaf group, which has carved a brutal image for beheadings, bombings and ransom kidnappings.
"There's nothing better than freedom," Atyani said in the hospital, thanking Filipino officials and people who worked for his release.
"I can see people around me, I can communicate, I can smile, I can feel that there are people who can understand me ... This is the feeling that I have really lost for the last 18 months," he said.
Atyani gained prominence for interviewing Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan a few months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Accompanied by two Filipino crewmen, he traveled to Sulu's jungles to interview Abu Sayyaf militants. His two companions were freed in February but Atyani was left behind.
"I was really shocked when they told me ... 'brother, you are our hostage,'" Atyani said.
Sulu military commander Col. Jose Cenabre said that Atyani either was freed or escaped from his captors. Atyani said that he escaped on his third attempt in the captivity after sensing that the gunmen have let their guard down and studying the route leading to a road by the sea.
Cenabre said it was difficult to verify speculations that a ransom was paid.
Atyani's Al Arabiya News Channel, based in Dubai and owned by a Saudi broadcaster, said in a statement that the kidnappers handed him over to the local governor's office late Wednesday and that Philippine authorities would secure his return to Jordan.
Two Philippine security officers who dealt with Atyani's kidnapping said authorities were verifying information that his captor, Sawadjaan, had grown weak in recent months and died due to an unspecified illness shortly before Atyani gained his freedom. The two officers declined to be named because of the sensitivity of their work.
When asked about Sawadjaan, Atyani said he heard that the Abu Sayyaf commander was suffering from a kidney ailment but he was not sure what had happened to him.
The militants still hold at least 17 captives in their jungle strongholds, including two European bird watchers who were kidnapped last year, Cenabre said. He added that Atyani told him he did not see the other captives.