UPDATES WITH STATEMENT, BACKGROUND
By Hader Glang
ZAMBOANGA CITY, the Philippines (AA) - Philippine officials confirmed Wednesday that Daesh-linked militants have released four sailors kidnapped off Malaysia’s eastern Sabah state over two months ago.
Maj. Filemon Tan Jr., Western Mindanao Command spokesman, said the four Malaysians were reportedly released by the Abu Sayyaf early Wednesday morning in the southern Philippine island province of Sulu.
"The victims were brought to the shoreline of Barangay [village] Lagasan Higat in Parang, Sulu and immediately boarded a speedboat en route to Sandakan, Sabah," Tan said in a statement.
"We have yet to confirm whether ransom money was paid in exchange for the safe release of the victims," he added.
Filipino gunmen had abducted the crew in early April from a vessel off Sabah, whose eastern coast is located just around 50 nautical miles from the southernmost Philippine island of Sitangkai.
Sulu police director Sr. Supt. Wilfredo Cayat was quoted by the Philippine Star on Wednesday as saying the four men -- including two brothers and their cousin -- returned to their home country with an emissary.
Malaysia-based The Star Online cited intelligence from Sulu’s capital Jolo as suggesting that the hostages were released after Malaysian and Filipino negotiators conducted several rounds of talks with the Abu Sayyaf.
The captors had reportedly demanded a ransom of 18 million ringgit ($4.4 million) for the sailors’ release.
In April, the Abu Sayyaf beheaded 68-year-old Canadian hostage John Ridsdel after a 300-million peso ($6 million) ransom failed to be paid.
The Abu Sayyaf is believed to still be holding several captives, including another Canadian, a Norwegian and a Filipino woman seized alongside Ridsdel in September, and a Dutch national kidnapped more than three years ago in Tawi-Tawi province.
Since 1991, the group -- armed with mostly improvised explosive devices, mortars and automatic rifles -- has carried out bombings, kidnappings, assassinations and extortions.
It is notorious for beheading victims after ransoms have failed to be paid for their release.