Kidnapped television reporter Ces Drilon, cameraman Jimmy Encarnacion and Mindanao State University professor Octavio Dinampo were freed late Tuesday night, nine days after they were abducted in Sulu province.
Philippine National Police Director General Avelino Razon confirmed the hostages were released at around 11 p.m. Tuesday.
“They were picked up by Jun Isnaji and secured by four policemen at Sitio Danasi, lower Sinumaan, Talipao, Sulu and brought to the house of Mayor Alvarez Isnaji,” Razon related in a text message. Jun Isnaji is Haider Isnaji, the mayor’s son.
“Ces Drilon and company are in good condition but they will immediately be given medical attention and appropriate nutrition. A plan for airlift o Zamboanga, and a reunion with family are also being considered,” said Razon.
He said the three will have to first undergo a debriefing in Zamboanga City before they are flown back to Manila.
Drilon, Encarnacion and Dinampo were with another ABS-CBN cameraman, Angelo Valderama, when they were kidnapped in Maimbung, Sulu, on June 8 while they were on the way to interview a top commander of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group.
Valderama was released on June 12 after a P2-million ransom was reportedly paid for his “board and lodging.”
In a phone interview Tuesday night from Zamboanga City with reporters in Camp Crame, Razon denied that any ransom payment or concession had been made to the kidnappers who were believed to be Abu Sayyaf members.
He said the negotiators had built on the goodwill developed with the kidnappers since the release of Valderama last week and the “cancellation” of Tuesday’s noon deadline for the payment of P15 million.
The release of the hostages, Razon claimed, was merely “due to the persistent and persuasive efforts of the local crisis committee under Indanan Mayor Alvarez Isnaji and Governor Sakur Tan.”
Chief Superintendent Joel Goltiao, police director for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), also confirmed the release of the kidnap victims but declined to provide additional details.
“Ces, Jimmy, and Angelo are finally all free,” ABS-CBN said in a statement. “We are thankful our prayers have been answered and our efforts rewarded.”
“Above all, the release of Ces, Jimmy, and Angelo could not have been possible without the cooperation of the people of Sulu and their local government. We thank them and share their hope for enduring peace in Mindanao,” the statement added.
Razon meanwhile said he had no idea Senator Loren Legarda was part of the negotiations.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer also learned that Legarda had been involved in the negotiations for the last five days at the request of Drilon’s family and ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corp., where Legarda was a broadcaster for many years before running for the Senate.
The Inquirer learned that Legarda secured the captives’ release without conditions or payment of ransom but on “purely humanitarian grounds.”
No military or police elements were present in the release operations.
“Ces is free. She is resting. Soon, she will be in the hands of her family,” Legarda told dzMM radio.
Legarda said the refusal of the victims’ families to pay ransom, and an imminent military operation, were the breakthrough that led to the release.
“Nung malaman nilang wala silang makukuha [When they realized they won’t be getting anything], they were pushed against the wall. Wala na silang mapuntahan [They had nowhere to run],” Legarda said.
“The military operations in the past few days helped,” she said.
The senator said she was in constant contact with Drilon, who put her on speakerphone for her captors to hear.
At one point, Legarda said Drilon told her over the phone crying: “Loren, tell me if you guys can’t do it so I can accept my fate that they will behead us.”
Legarda said Drilon told her that Encarnacion’s hands were tied and was being prepared for beheading at one point.
It was at that instant that “I pressured them, I cajoled them, I appealed to them, I even threatened them. They should be freed,” Legarda related.
Legarda said Drilon’s group was “very upbeat and calm” though tired from the five-hour-long trek from the Sulu hinterlands.
Mayor Isnaji had been under pressure to secure the release of the captives, except that earlier Tuesday, Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan said he had stopped all negotiations with the kidnappers.
Haider Isnaji also said he had been on the phone with the kidnappers around six times beginning with their first call at 6:15 a.m. on Tuesday.
“I told them that no P15 million is forthcoming, that both the government and ABS-CBN have a no-ransom policy,” he said, adding that the kidnappers “finally dropped the deadline.”
He said he was able to convince the kidnappers “to accept a livelihood package instead.”
Razon also said earlier Tuesday the police and military in Sulu were ready for any “contingency” but their “paramount concern” was the safe release of the three hostages.
Razon said that if there was any lesson from the kidnapping, it was also to properly exercise press freedom.
“Ang aral po dito laging sinasabi hindi natin puwedeng i-exercise press freedom na malalagay ang [The lesson here is we can’t exercise press freedom by putting] reporters or journalists in harm’s way, na hawak ng terrorista or criminal elements,” said Razon. With reports from Ed General and Julie S. Alipala Inquirer Mindanao and Alcuin Papa in Manila