POSTED: 3:43 a.m. HST, Apr 6, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 3:59 a.m. HST, Apr 6, 2011
MANILA, Philippines >> Armed tribesmen under pressure from Filipino troops abandoned 13 hostages they held six days to demand the release of jailed relatives, then escaped in the southern Philippine jungle Wednesday, officials said.
The stunned but unharmed hostages, mostly school teachers and a 10-year-old girl stricken with fever, were seized by five Manobo tribesmen Friday in remote southeastern Agusan del Sur province. Their safe release contrasted with the bloody end of a hostage crisis last year in which eight Hong Kong tourists were shot to death in Manila.
"I'm happy that nobody got hurt," President Benigno Aquino III said.
Aquino sent Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo and the national police chief to Agusan, about 515 miles (830 kilometers) southeast of Manila, as the hostage standoff dragged on and attracted wide news coverage.
The hostage-takers, armed with an M16 rifle, a shotgun and a pistol, demanded the freedom of tribal leader Jobert "Ondo" Perez, who was jailed with three other tribesmen for taking 79 people captive in the same place in 2009 over a long-running clan feud.
Perez was briefly freed earlier in the week to help end the standoff and officials promised to take steps to speed up the resolution of his criminal cases. Three captives were freed, but the gunmen kept the others as about 100 police and army special forces surrounded the hilly jungle area.
After sensing the presence of troops and fearing an assault, the gunmen early Wednesday abandoned their remaining hostages, who walked down the hills and were secured by authorities, Robredo told The Associated Press by telephone from Agusan.
"It was a mix of negotiating and showing that if necessary, we'll employ force," Robredo said. "My suspicion is that pressured them to abandon the hostages."
Still looking bewildered from their jungle captivity, the hostages — wearing new white shirts — were later presented to journalists in Agusan's capital town of Prosperidad surrounded by beaming officials. Prosperidad Mayor Albin Magdamit said that except for bruises and insect bites, they were all well and were welcomed back to freedom with bowls of hot chicken porridge.
"I didn't show it throughout, but I feared most that the negotiations could bog down anytime," he said.
In Manila last August, the hostage-taking of a busload of Hong Kong tourists ended in disaster with the death of eight of the captives. The kidnapper — a dismissed policeman who wanted his job back — was shot to death by police commandos. The bungled rescue strained the country's ties with mainland China and Hong Kong.
Clan feuds, fueled by weak law enforcement in remote regions awash with illegal firearms, have often erupted into deadly clashes and ransom kidnappings in the southern Philippines. The violence underscores the complexity of security problems in the south, where troops have been battling Muslim and communist insurgents, along with al-Qaida-linked militants, for years.
In 2009, Perez and three others tried to dodge arrest on murder charges by holding 79 people hostage for four days. The hostages were freed after Manobo tribal elders intervened, but Perez and his relatives were arrested, angering other clan members, including some who allegedly led the just-ended hostage crisis.
Asked by reporters if he can assure there will be no more hostage-taking in the area, Magdamit paused and said, "It's difficult to answer that."
Associated Press writer Hrvoje Hranjski contributed to this report.