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Philippine militants ‘free Norwegian hostage’

The Abu Sayyaf is a radical offshoot of a Muslim separatist insurgency that has claimed more than 120,000 lives since the 1970s © AFP/File / Therence Koh

Manila, Philippines, Sep 17 – A Norwegian held hostage by a notorious kidnapping-for-ransom gang in the strife-torn southern Philippines was released Saturday after a year in captivity and will soon be handed over to authorities, officials said.

Kjartan Sekkingstad was abducted by Abu Sayyaf from a high-end tourist resort in September 2015, alongside a Filipina woman, who has already been freed, and two Canadian men who were later beheaded by the Islamic militant group.

Sekkingstad was released by Abu Sayyaf Saturday and handed to another Muslim rebel group in Sulu, a remote archipelago known as a militant hideout, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s peace advisor told AFP.

“He is now released by captors and (is) staying overnight with Nur Misuari’s camp… due to heavy rain,” Jesus Dureza said, referring to the founder of the Muslim rebel group Moro National Liberation Front.

The MNLF are currently in peace talks with the government and have been working with authorities to secure Sekkingstad’s release.

“He is well,” Dureza said, adding that Sekkingstad would be handed over to authorities on Sunday and then flown to the southern city of Davao.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is expected to greet released Norwegian hostage Kjartan Sekkingstad in Davao © AFP/File / Ted Aljibe

The president’s spokesman Martin Andanar told AFP Duterte was heading to Davao to receive Sekkingstad.

Norway said the release was a “positive development”, adding that it was closely monitoring the situation and working with Philippine authorities to bring Sekkingstad to safety.

“According to Philippine authorities, Sekkingstad is now in a relatively safe place,” Norway’s Foreign minister Borge Brende said in a written comment to AFP.

“We refrain from celebrating until Sekkingstad has been safely handed over to Philippine authorities.”

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— Canadians beheaded —

Resort manager Sekkingstad was among a group seized by Abu Sayyaf from aboard yachts at an exclusive tourist resort on Samal island, about 500 kilometres (300 miles) to the west of Sulu.

Two of the other captives, Canadians John Ridsdel and Robert Hall, were beheaded in April and June respectively after demands for ransoms of some 300 million pesos ($6.5 million) each were not met.

Hall’s partner Filipina Marites Flor, also among the four, was freed in June.

The Abu Sayyaf is a loose network of a militants formed in the 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network.

Philippine soldiers prepare for an operation against the extremist Abu Sayyaf group on September 5, 2016 on the southern island of Mindanao © AFP/File / Mark Navales

It is based in remote Muslim populated southern islands of the mainly Catholic Philippines, and has earned millions of dollars from kidnappings-for-ransom.

While its leaders have in recent years pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, analysts say the group is mainly focused on a lucrative kidnapping business rather than religious ideology.

The group, which is blamed for the worst terror attacks in Philippine history and listed by the United States as a terrorist organisation, does not usually release hostages without ransom.

But regional military spokesman Major Filemon Tan said the release of the victim was the result of “an offshoot of ongoing military operations… and the assistance of the MNLF”.

Duterte last month ordered a military offensive to “destroy” the Abu Sayyaf, deploying thousands of troops as part of a major assault which has met fierce resistance.

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