NORTH COTABATO (Mindanao Examiner / 31 May) – Kidnappers have freed on Thursday four people they earlier seized in the southern Philippines, officials said.
Gunmen released the four to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels in the village of Balongis in North Cotabato’s Pikit town, said Col. Pedro Soria, commander of the Army’s 602nd Infantry Brigade in the province.
The release of the hostages previously reported as Caucasians came hours after the rebel group, backed by security forces, mounted a massive rescue operation.
But it turned out that only one hostage is foreigner, Thomas Wallart, a German national. Other reports identified the German as Wallraf, from Cologne. The others are Filipinos – May Sharon, the German’s wife; and Diego Daniel, the van driver; and Consuelo San Juan, a friend of the German couple.
"The victims were released to the MILF and they will be turned over to us," Soria told the independent regional newspaper, the Mindanao Examiner.
The four were heading to North Cotabato from Davao City onboard a van when gunmen flagged down their vehicle.
Major General Raymundo Ferrer, commander of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, said the four hostages were not harmed by the gunmen. “They are all alright,” he said.
Ferrer said the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country’s largest Muslim rebel group negotiating peace with Manila, offered to help track down the kidnappers.
The MILF has in the past helped the government rescue kidnapped foreigners and Filipinos in Mindanao.
A rebel spokesman, Eid Kabalu, said the four would be handed over to the Philippine authorities and the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team. “We are glad it’s over,” he said in a separate interview.
One of the hostage, May Sharon Wallart, said they were not harmed by the kidnappers, but shaken by the ordeal. "We are really thankful that they did not harm any of us. We are so tired and probably fly back to Manila to get some rest," she told reporters in Pikit town.
She said the gunmen, clad in military uniform, flagged down their vehicle at a checkpoint and seized them. "We did not think it was a kidnap because they were all wearing uniform like those of the soldiers. They took our belongings and tied our hands and took us away," she said.
The woman said she and her husband were in Pikit on a business trip. "We are into metal trading," she said.
Other reports said the German national is a treasure hunter.
The abductions coincided with the start of the ten-day joint amphibious war games between the Philippines and the United States.
Marine Major General Mohammad Dolorfino, chairman of the government Ad hoc Joint Action Group, said the abductors were bandits operating in North Cotabato.
“The MILF is able to react immediately and rebel forces sealed off the area where the abductors are holding the four victims and recovered them safely,” he said.
It was unknown whether the MILF arrested any of the gunmen. (With reports from Juley Reyes, Mark Navales and Juan Magtanggol)