Al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf militants set free two hostages in Philippines

By Jim Gomez, AP

MANILA — Abu Sayyaf gunmen have freed two Filipino crewmen of a Jordanian TV journalist who were kidnapped last year but the al-Qaida-linked militants continued to hold the reporter and four other foreigners in a jungle where a fierce clash between the extremists and another Muslim rebel group erupted Sunday, officials said.

Police found frail-looking cameraman Ramel Vela and audio technician Roland Letriro late Saturday and brought them to a hospital in southern Sulu province, where they were kidnapped in June along with Jordanian Baker Abdulla Atyani, Sulu police chief Senior Superintendent Antonio Freyra said.

Atyani is believed to be held by Abu Sayyaf gunmen in the jungles of Sulu’s mountainous Patikul town, about 950 kilometers (590 miles) south of Manila.

“We’re so happy. We never thought we’d make it out alive,” a teary-eyed Vela said from his hospital bed, adding he and Letriro had not seen Atyani since the kidnappers separated them shortly after they were taken hostage.

Visibly thinner with overgrown hair and beards, the two were examined by doctors and given bread and water.

An unspecified amount was paid to secure their freedom, according to three security officials who have been monitoring the kidnappings. The three spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

Military officials say Abu Sayyaf militants had demanded 130 million pesos ($3.1 million) for the release of Atyani and his two crew members.

Muslim rebels from the larger Moro National Liberation Front, which signed a 1996 autonomy deal with the government, meanwhile, clashed with the Abu Sayyaf on Sunday in Patikul’s jungles after they failed to convince the extremists to release all their hostages, including Atyani and two European men, after more than two weeks of negotiations, Freyra told The Associated Press.