MANILA, Philippines – Suspected Abu Sayyaf militants in the Philippines have freed a mayor after seven months of captivity in a southern jungle where he was kept barefoot and took up smoking to ease his ordeal.
Regional army spokesman Capt. Alberto Caber says Jeffrey Lim, 36, was freed unharmed before dawn Tuesday near Zamboanga city and has been handed over to his family.
Lim had been missing since April 2 when at least 10 gunmen disguised as policemen kidnapped him while having dinner with his family near a bus terminal in his southern town of Salug in Zamboanga del Norte province.
The kidnappers were not immediately identified but authorities believe they belonged to the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf, which is notorious for kidnappings for ransom and beheadings. From Salug, he was believed to have been brought by boat to the jungles of nearby Basilan Island, the Abu Sayyaf's birthplace, Caber said.
Jesus Lim, the mayor's father, told The Associated Press by telephone that an unspecified amount of money has been paid to the kidnappers, through a negotiator, to secure the release of his son, who had a tearful reunion with his wife and three children.
Aside from bruises on his feet from walking barefoot in the jungle and weight loss, the freed mayor was well and would resume his work as mayor, said Lim.
"It was the hardest seven months of his life," Lim said. "There was no TV and radio. He didn't even know how long he was away because there was no calendar."
Six men armed with M16 rifles guarded the mayor, who was made to sleep in the open on a hammock and survived mostly on rice with vinegar or sugar. On better days, fried chicken and fish were served, he said.
The gunmen constantly moved at night, blindfolding the mayor, who was made to walk barefoot. They bound his hands with masking tape after his abduction but later became lenient, even sharing cigarettes with their captive, who was not previously a smoker, his father said.
Lim's family later managed to send some items, including a notebook and a pen, through a negotiator, allowing the mayor, a civil engineer, to sketch trees. The gunmen later seized the sketches, apparently fearing the drawings might compromise their security, he said.
Ransom kidnappings are common in the southern Philippines, where an abundance of weapons, weak law enforcement and a long-running Muslim rebellion have fueled decades-long unrest. But mayors are rarely targeted and Lim's kidnapping reflected the depth of the problem in the impoverished region.
While Abu Sayyaf abductions still occur, they are far fewer today than the many kidnappings that terrorized Basilan and outlying provinces a decade ago when the group still had many commanders and strong ties with terrorist organizations. The group has been blacklisted by Washington as a terrorist group and has fewer than 400 jungle-based fighters, mostly on the run from Philippine troops.