ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines – Kidnappers have released the two Filipino crew members of Jordanian journalist Baker Atyani, just as reports surfaced that members of the Moro National Liberation Front have clashed with Abu Sayyaf in its bid to pressure the bandit group into releasing more of their captives.
Sulu Governor Abdusakur Tan, in a phone interview earlier, confirmed the release of Rolando Letrero and Ramelito Vela.
“They are now free and are in the hospital,” Tan said. He, however, could not give details about the release.
A military officer, who asked not to be named for not having been assigned to speak to the media on the matter, said Letrero and Vela were released from the Abu Sayyaf camp in the village of Buhanginan in Patikul town Sulu on Saturday night.
Colonel Orlando de Leon, Joint Task Force Sulu commander, confirmed that Letrero and Vela “are now in our custody and presently undergoing medical attention at the provincial hospital here.”
De Leon said the two would be transferred to this city after their “debriefing.”
De Leon said he was “not yet ready” to release details of how the victims were freed.
Octavio Dinampo, a Sulu-based Mindanao State University professor and provincial coordinator of the Bantay Ceasefire, said “strong pressure” from the Moro National Liberation Front prompted the release of two captives.
“The place where the captives were held [is] now surrounded by about 3,000 armed MNLF forces and they have encircled some 700 ASG still holding other captives,” Dinampo told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
“Several armed men brought the duo (Rolando Letrero and Ramelito Vela) down and they were told to board a Tamaraw vehicle from Danag Barangay (village), still part of Patikul, and they were dropped off at the back of the Capitol Building,” Dinampo said, quoting his sources from the ground.
“From there, they took a tricycle. Vela is reportedly seriously ill and he was assisted by this young companion (Letrero) and they went to Busbus barangay and checked in at the AVR Inn,” Dinampo said.
The Sulu police have secured the victims and brought them to the hospital “because Vela could hardly walk and is very sick,” Dinampo said.
Atyani and his crew went “missing” after entering an Abu Sayyaf camp on June 12, 2012. “Reports later surfaced that they were held hostage by the Abu Sayyaf.
Two European bird watchers and two Filipinos, identified as Engr. Carlos Tee, an airport engineer, and Edmund Gumbahali, a consultant of the Non- Violence Peace Force, are still in captivity.
“What I gathered from my contacts is that the ASG is still demanding P10 million from Atyani’s family,” Dinampo said on Sunday.
Lt. Gen. Rey Ardo, chief of Western Mindanao Command, said MNLF forces have been clashing with Abu Sayyaf bandits in Patikul town in Sulu starting Sunday morning.
“I cannot say if there’s casualty but reports indicated matindi ang bakbakan sa dalawang grupo matapos makalaya itong dalawa (the fighting between the two groups is intense after the release of the two Filipino crew members of Atyani),” Ardo told Philippine Daily Inquirer.
Dinampo said he received reports that 12 persons have died in the ongoing clashes. “We still have to determine from which side these casualties are,” Dinampo said.