Islamist militants who captured and held two Germans on a remote island in the Philippines for six months claim they were paid a large ransom in exchange for their release over the weekend.
Stefan Okonek and Henrike Dielen were released by the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group Friday evening and flown to the German embassy in Manila Saturday morning, a Filipino military official said. The pair were filmed in a video at the embassy appearing frail but smiling, which was later posted to social media.
Friday afternoon before the hostages were released, the kidnappers had threatened to behead Okonek unless a 250 million pesos ($5.6 million) ransom was paid. They also asked Germany to immediately stop supporting US-led coalition airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.
Later that day, Abu Sayyaf spokesman, Abu Rami, told a radio station based in southern Zamboanga City that the group had obtained the full ransom amount and freed the hostages.
"The (money) arrived, nothing more, nothing less," he said.
Earlier in the week, Okonek, 71, a medical doctor, was allowed to make a statement on local radio. He said he was being held in a hole in the jungle floor that would soon turn into his grave if the demands of his captors were not met.
"Please do everything to get us out of here," Okonek said, according to the Associated Press. "I hope you will negotiate my release."
Unidentified officials from the Philippines later confirmed with the Associated Press that the ransom had been paid.
The government of the Philippines has remained officially silent on the exchange, except to confirm that Okonek and Dielen were released outside Patikul at around 8:50pm Friday and taken to a local police station. They were later transferred by navy ship to Zamboanga, where they spent the night under observation in a military hospital.
The German Foreign Ministry has also not officially commented on any alleged ransom, but attributed "close and trustful cooperation" with the Philippine government for the safe return of its two citizens.
"We are relieved to be able to confirm that both Germans are no longer in the hands of their kidnappers," a spokeswoman for the German foreign ministry told Reuters Friday. "Both Germans are now in the care of staff of the embassy in Manila."
Okonek and Dielen, 55, were sailing on a yacht between Sabah, Malaysia on the Island of Borneo to the Island of Palawan in the western Philippines when Abu Sayyaf gunmen raided their boat in April.
The pair were captured and taken to the Philippines' southern, mostly-Muslim populated Sulu province, on Jolo Island, where other hostages are also being held, according to the Associated Press.
Since its inception in the early '90s, the Abu Sayyaf has claimed responsibility for numerous kidnappings, murders, and bombings in and around Jolo and Basilan Islands, where Moro insurgents have waged an uprising for an independent Islamic province for more than four decades.
The group has not discriminated in its kidnap victims, and rose to infamy after seizing 21 tourists and staff from a Malaysian dive resort in 2000.
The abductions across the region have continued, despite a decade of US-backed army offensives aimed at stamping out the small but violent group from the majority Christian nation.
The militants, who are tied to al Qaeda, also claim to have established links with Islamic State fighters in the Middle East. In late July, Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon posted a video pledging allegiance to the Islamic State's self-proclaimed caliph Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But the connection between the groups remains murky, with some members of the military in the Philippines claiming Abu Sayyaf is merely riding off the rush of notoriety and publicity generated by the Islamic State.
In August, a German national abducted by Islamist militants was freed in a separate incident after a year in captivity. German authorities said then that "no state money" had been paid for the citizen's release and that the government would not be blackmailed.
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