ZAMBOANGA CITY—The Abu Sayyaf bandit counted the money in front of Basilan Vice Gov. Al Rasheed Sakalahul. It was P4 million. And early on Saturday morning, Australian Warren Richard Rodwell walked to freedom after 15 months in the hands of the al-Qaida-linked band of kidnappers.
A Philippine security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he had no authorization to talk to reporters, confirmed that a ransom was paid for Rodwell’s release, as was usually the case with other hostages held by the Abu Sayyaf over the last two decades.
The official did not say how much was paid to the bandits, but there was talk that it was P7 million but only P4 million went to the kidnappers after “local officials and middlemen” had taken their cut.
Sakalahul said the ransom was P4 million and he was sure because Abu Sayyaf Pujuri Indama counted the money in front of him and Roger Gutang, brother of Rodwell’s Filipino wife, Miraflor Rodwell.
“Throughout the negotiations, I only served as guide,” Sakalahul said.
“I am willing to be subjected to a lie-detector test,” Sakalahul said after being told about reports that Rodwell’s release was delayed because local officials and middlemen went through the ransom before it reached the hands of the Abu Sayyaf.
“If this is what the reports are saying, I challenge the Australian embassy, Flor, Roger and Rodwell to an open media briefing so the truth will come out,” Sakalahul said.
He said Gutang served as the bagman and it was he who handed the money to Indama.
The kidnappers released Rodwell, 54, in Pagadian City, Zamboanga del Sur province, early on Saturday.
Kidnapped in 2011
The military said the kidnappers released Rodwell in the port city 100 kilometers east of Ipil town where he had been living with his wife before he was kidnapped in 2011.
Rodwell joked with policemen and a journalist who took exclusive video footage of him for the news agency Agence France-Presse at Pagadian City police station shortly after his release.
“Lose weight … skeleton,” a smiling Rodwell said as he took off his T-shirt for the video camera and pointed at ribs that could be seen hard up against his skin. He then sucked up his stomach to accentuate his weight loss.
Rodwell was clean shaven, except for a mustache, and his hair was cut neatly.
Abu Sayyaf bandits posing as policemen broke into his house on Dec. 5, 2011, and seized him, and had initially demanded $2 million for his freedom.
Rodwell was one of several foreigners kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf in the south. Two Europeans and a Jordanian journalist are still being held alongside a Japanese man.
Rodwell had since appeared in several proof-of-life videos posted by the kidnappers as negotiations for his release dragged on.
Philippine and Australian authorities refused to say on Saturday if any ransom had been paid to secure Rodwell’s release.
Both the Philippine and Australian governments have strict policies of refusing to pay ransoms. That left Rodwell’s family to struggle to raise funds, including selling some of their properties, according to an official confidential report seen by the news agency The Associated Press.
Sakalahul’s story and the security official’s statement support the report seen by AP.
What remains for the authorities to find out now is the identity of the local officials and middlemen who divvied up part of the ransom among themselves before sending it on its way to the Abu Sayyaf.
Wearing Philippine Army fatigues, rolled-up brown pants and green slippers, Rodwell hobbled away from the helicopter, tottered and had to be assisted by two American soldiers, members of the Joint Special Operations Task Force.
US soldiers cordoned off the helipad, preventing journalists from getting near Rodwell.
Chief Insp. Ariel Huesca, spokesperson for the Western Mindanao Regional Police Office, said the Abu Sayyaf dropped Rodwell off at the Pagadian Fisheries Building after 1 a.m.
Rodwell, walking alone in the port area, was seen by a civilian named Nathaniel Tampos, Huesca said.
Proof of life
Sakalahul said Rodwell’s wife, Miraflor, “worked hard” for his release.
“She called me asking for help to determine if indeed her husband was still alive,” Sakalahul said.
“My role was to determine if Rodwell was alive through a proof of life,” he said.
The proof of life, he said, was the answer to a question only Rodwell and his parents knew: Where did Rodwell live when he was 12 years old?
Sakalahul said he received the answer by phone: Gill Goulburn and West Tamworth, both in New South Wales, Australia.
Authorities believed Rodwell was held in Basilan, but Sakalahul said he realized that the Abu Sayyaf were keeping the Australian somewhere else when he was told that the kidnappers were planning to release him in Zamboanga del Sur.
Sakalahul said Indama called him to say that Rodwell had been released near the Pagadian Fisheries Building.
“I called up the military and the police to notify them about Rodwell being in the Pagadian City Port, and the rest is history,” he said.
Col. Rodrigo Gregorio, spokesperson for the military’s Western Mindanao Command, (Westmincom) said soldiers and policemen found Rodwell in the port area at around 1:30 a.m.
“His release was made possible through the collective effort of [his] family, the Australian embassy, the local governments, military, police and other governmental agencies,” Gregorio said.
Rodwell was taken to the Westmincom camp hospital for medical checkup before being turned over to his family and Australian embassy officials, Gregorio said.
The Australian government on Saturday lauded the Philippines for “remarkable” efforts to get Rodwell back to safety.
Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr, who is in Washington on a visit, confirmed Rodwell’s release and said the Perth native was in the hands of Philippine authorities.
“I do want to pay tribute to the government of the Philippines and their agencies and personnel who worked so hard to secure Mr. Rodwell’s release, including particularly those who combat kidnapping in the Philippines for the Philippine government. They have done some remarkable work,” Carr said in a statement released by the Australian embassy on Saturday.
“I would also like to pay tribute to our own Australian officials, including those from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, from the Australian Federal Police and indeed from Defense who have also worked hard on this matter,” Carr said.
Carr said Rodwell was to be transferred to a safe location on Saturday.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard expressed relief over Rodwell’s release and congratulated Philippine authorities for their handling of the case.
“I do want to pay tribute to the government of the Philippines and their agencies and personnel. They worked so hard to secure Mr. Rodwell’s release,” Gillard told reporters. With reports from Tarra Quismundo in Manila; AP and AFP
Originally posted: 5:21 am | Saturday, March 23rd, 2013