hostages walked free in the Philippines on Saturday after three
weeks of captivity with Muslim rebels, and the government said
the rebel leader who kidnapped them had been killed.
The most senior civilian official on Basilan, the island stronghold of the self-styled Abu Sayyaf rebels, said he had confirmation the guerrilla chief, Khadafy Janjalani, was killed in a shootout with troops two weeks ago.
The two freed hostages were a 12-year-old girl, Kimberly Jao, and a 50-year-old man, Francis Ganzon. The pair walked free after their families apparently paid ransom.
They were among three Americans and 17 Filipinos abducted by the Abu Sayyaf from an upscale beach resort on May 27, taken by powerful speedboats over 300 miles of sea to Basilan and kept under armed guard in jungle hideouts as the gunmen fought off pursuing troops.
"The (military) pressure is too much for them (the rebels), so they are trying to ease the pressure by giving these hostages," a senior official, who requested anonymity, told Reuters.
But local officials said there was little doubt ransom was paid. They said the two were escorted from a guerrilla camp on Basilan by a local Muslim leader who had claimed in a radio interview three days ago he was being held hostage by the Abu Sayyaf.
Presidential spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao said the three were allowed to leave by the guerrillas two days ago and reached Isabela, the capital of Basilan, after walking through dense mountainous jungles.
They then took a ferry to the nearby city of Zamboanga, where the three were taken in by the military and given a meal. Video footage obtained by Reuters showed Jao feeding ravenously on fried chicken while Ganzon talked on a mobile phone.
BROUGHT TO MANILA
Jao and Ganzon, the youngest and the oldest among the hostages, were later brought to Manila, 900 km (550 miles) to the north, in an air force jet.
Jao, wearing a scarf above a long-sleeved blue shirt and trousers, kept her head and face covered when they arrived in the capital. Ganzon was hugged by his wife, who herself was a hostage until two weeks ago. Neither spoke to reporters.
Newspapers have repeatedly said over the past two days that the Abu Sayyaf were preparing to free two hostages in exchange for 10 million pesos ($200,000) in ransom.
Jao's mother Letty and Ganzon's wife Teresa, who were also taken captive, were freed to arrange the ransom, the newspapers have said.
At least nine of the original 20 hostages have escaped or been freed amid bitter fighting between government troops and the Abu Sayyaf on Basilan. Two of the hostages have been found dead, apparently killed by the guerrillas.
The government has said it will not pay ransom for the release of the hostages, but officials have privately said they cannot stop victims' families paying up.
Newspapers have said the guerrillas have been using a satellite phone to contact families of the captives to make demands and set up modes of payment.
GUERRILLA CHIEF KILLED
Wahab Akbar, the governor of Basilan, told reporters he had confirmation that the guerrilla chief Janjalani was killed in an encounter with troops soon after the band landed on the island following the kidnapping foray.
"They have buried him," he said. "I will be visiting his burial place."
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said earlier this month that Janjalani had been killed but the military said it could not confirm the report.
The Abu Sayyaf gunmen have taken several more hostages on Basilan and now hold the three Americans and about two dozen Filipinos.
A spokesman for the rebels said last week one of the Americans, 40-year-old Guillermo Sobero, had been executed. But military officials have said no body has been found and the claim appeared to be a bluff.
The Abu Sayyaf claims to be fighting for Muslim self-rule in the south of the Roman Catholic Philippines. Its main activity has been kidnap for ransom.
Last year, Abu Sayyaf gunmen abducted scores of hostages, including Western tourists from a resort in nearby Malaysia, and received about $20 million in ransom payments, local officials have said.