MANILA, Philippines—Two Germans kidnapped and held for six months in the southern Philippines were released Friday by a militant group just hours after it had threatened to behead one of them if no ransom payment was made, the Philippine defence chief said.
The Abu Sayyaf group released Stefan Okonek and Henrike Dielen on southern Jolo Island, Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said.
Abu Sayyaf spokesman Abu Rami told radio station DXRZ in southern Zamboanga City that his group received 250 million pesos ($5.6 million) in ransom. He did not say who paid it.
Gazmin said he was “not privy” to information about any ransom payment.
“We’re happy they’re safe. I hope there will be no more” kidnappings, Gazmin said by telephone.
Abu Sayyaf gunmen seized Okonek and Dielen last April from a yacht between Malaysia’s Sabah state on Borneo Island and the western Philippine province of Palawan. They were taken by boat to Sulu province, about 950 kilometres (590 miles) south of Manila, where militants are holding other hostages.
Abu Rami had threatened to behead Okonek on Friday if there was no ransom payment. The group also demanded the withdrawal of German support for U.S.-led air strikes against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.
In a call to the Zamboanga radio station, Rami said Okonek and Dielen were released to a negotiator in Patikul township on Jolo Island, an Abu Sayyaf stronghold.
“The 250 million pesos arrived, no more, no less,” he said.
In an interview with DXRZ allowed by the militants earlier this week, Okonek, 71, who identified himself as a medical doctor, pleaded, “please do everything to get us out of here.”
He said he was speaking from inside a 5 metre-by-3 metre (15 foot-by-10 foot) “grave” the gunmen had dug for him in the jungle. He said he and Dielen had been separated by the militants about a day earlier.
“They pushed me inside this hole and I’m sitting with 10 men around me all day, 24 hours a day. I don’t get enough to eat. I have lost already 20 pounds and I am very weak,” he said.
Military chief of staff Gen. Gregorio Catapang said the freed Germans were taken to a hospital in a military camp and would be flown to Manila on Saturday.
He said the military and police would conduct an “all-out offensive” against the Abu Sayyaf and “look for the other kidnap victims.”
Catapang said the Abu Sayyaf is still holding more than a dozen other hostages, including Filipinos and two European birdwatchers who were kidnapped two years ago.
The militants have been using the birdwatchers as “human shields” from government offensives, according to regional military commander Lt. Gen. Rustico Guerrero.
The kidnappings dramatize the threats still posed by the Abu Sayyaf despite more than a decade of U.S.-backed Philippine military offensives that has crippled the group. Their ransom kidnappings have alarmed nearby countries like Malaysia.
In 2000, Abu Sayyaf gunmen snatched 21 European tourists, including three Germans, and Malaysian and Filipino workers from Malaysia’s Sipadan diving resort and brought them to Sulu, where they eventually were freed in exchange for large ransom payments.
Associated Press writer Jim Gomez contributed to this story.