SYDNEY—Foreign Minister Bob Carr on Thursday welcomed news that Australian Warren Richard Rodwell was alive after being held hostage by Abu Sayyaf bandits for more than a year in the Philippines, but said his prolonged captivity was a “major concern.”
Rodwell, seized from his seashore house and taken by speedboat to nearby mountainous islands where the bandits were hiding, said in a video that he was being held in isolation and knew little of what was going on around him.
In the video, Rodwell said the date was Dec. 16, 2012, and held up a copy of the Philippine Daily Inquirer dated Dec. 15. He was dressed in a black shirt and held the Inquirer in front of a white blanket to obscure his location. He said the recording was made the following day.
In the two-minute video, he said he was kidnapped “53, 54 weeks [ago] today” and that he understood there were negotiations under way.
In the video the SITE monitoring group said had been posted on a YouTube channel linked to the Abu Sayyaf, Rodwell confirmed he was captured by the bandit group, which was founded in the late 1990s with seed money from al-Qaida.
“This video clip is to say that I’m alive. I am waiting to be released,” he said, then added seconds later: “I personally hold no hope at all for being released.”
“The people who are around me normally don’t speak English. I understand something is happening but I don’t know when. I do not expect to be released before the year 2013, at the earliest,” said the 54-year-old former soldier from Sydney.
“I have no idea what’s going on outside, I’m just kept held prisoner in isolation,” he also said.
Rodwell was seized by the Abu Sayyaf from his home in the town of Ipil, Zamboanga Sibugay, on Dec. 4, 2011.
PH gov’t helping
Carr said the “confirmation of Rodwell’s welfare is welcome” but described his prolonged captivity as a “major concern.”
“The Philippines government has the lead in response to this case and is devoting significant resources to securing Mr. Rodwell’s release,” Carr said in a statement.
“The Australian government is assisting Philippines authorities where appropriate.”
Carr said government officials were also in regular contact with Rodwell’s family, and it would “not be helpful to Mr. Rodwell to comment further.”
The Philippine military said it was working to verify whether the video was legitimate.
“The Armed Forces of the Philippines will take measures in support of the Philippine National Police … to fully ascertain the identity and, if possible, the whereabouts of the individual if he is a kidnap victim,” said Maj. Emmanuel Garcia, the military’s deputy chief for public affairs.
Rodwell last appeared in a video in May that was believed to be dated from the end of March.
In another video in January, reportedly sent to his Filipino wife, Miraflor Gutang, Rodwell said his captors were demanding $2 million in ransom.
In the latest video, Rodwell appeared thinner than in the January video. A long jungle captivity carries not only obvious health risks, like malaria and dengue, but also the danger of getting caught in the crossfire between bandits and government troops.
The Abu Sayyaf group has been blamed for the worst terror attacks in Philippine history and has previously kidnapped foreigners and Christians for ransom.
Met wife over Internet
Rodwell is a former Australian soldier who also worked as a university teacher in Shanghai before marrying a Filipino he met over the Internet in June 2011, when he moved to his wife’s town in Zamboanga Sibugay.
He was one of the latest foreigners abducted in Mindanao, where several kidnappings for ransom have been blamed on the Abu Sayyaf, which uses the money for food, weapons and other items.
Military officials say Rodwell has been held in recent months in the Abu Sayyaf jungle hideouts on Basilan Island but had also been moved to nearby islands.
The Abu Sayyaf is on the US list of terrorist organizations. US-backed Philippine military operations have crippled attacks and terrorist plots waged by some 350 militants, 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.
The main Muslim separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, recently signed a peace accord with the government in exchange for broad autonomy, and it is hoped the agreement would isolate militants like the Abu Sayyaf.
Held in Basilan
A Malaysian and an Indian were released from a long captivity by the Abu Sayyaf earlier this year in exchange for ransom.
Basilan Vice Gov. Al Rasheed Sakalahul said Rodwell was possibly being kept in Basilan.
Sakalahul told the Inquirer that about two weeks ago, he got a text message from an unidentified sender who sought his help so that Rodwell could be freed.
Sakalahul did not elaborate on what happened to their text exchange but said his help would not be sought if the Australian was not in Basilan.
“So I believe that Rodwell is alive and in Basilan,” Sakalahul said on the phone.
Will help if …
Sakalahul said he was not aware of the latest video and that he had not seen any proof of life in Rodwell’s case. “I’ll consider helping [in the release of Rodwell] if there’s proof of life already,” he said.
Meanwhile, police and military officials in Western Mindanao continued to be tight-lipped about the fate of four other foreigners suspected to have been abducted by the Abu Sayyaf.
Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan has not returned calls or responded to the Inquirer’s text messages about Japanese treasure hunter Mamaito Katayama, 63; European bird watchers Lorenzo Vinciguerra, 47, a Swiss, and Ewold Horn, 52, a Dutch; and Jordanian journalist Baker Atyani.
Col. Orlando de Leon, commander of the Marines in Sulu, asked the Inquirer to get updates from the police as “they are the lead agency regarding that matter.” But Chief Supt. Mario Avenido, police director of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, did not respond to calls and text messages.—Reports from AFP, AP and Julie Alipala, Inquirer Mindanao