MANILA, Philippines – Abu Sayyaf gunmen have freed two Filipino crewmen of a Jordanian TV journalist who were kidnapped last year but the al-Qaida-linked militants continued to hold the reporter and four other foreigners in a jungle where a fierce clash between the extremists and another Muslim rebel group erupted Sunday, officials said.
Police found frail-looking cameraman Ramel Vela and audio technician Roland Letriro late Saturday and brought them to a hospital in southern Sulu province, where they were kidnapped in June along with Jordanian Baker Abdulla Atyani, Sulu police chief Senior Superintendent Antonio Freyra said.
Atyani is believed to be held by Abu Sayyaf gunmen in the jungles of Sulu's mountainous Patikul town, about 950 kilometers (590 miles) south of Manila.
"We're so happy. We never thought we'd make it out alive," a teary-eyed Vela said from his hospital bed, adding he and Letriro had not seen Atyani since the kidnappers separated them shortly after they were taken hostage.
Visibly thinner with overgrown hair and beards, the two were examined by doctors and given bread and water.
An unspecified amount was paid to secure their freedom, according to three security officials who have been monitoring the kidnappings. The three spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
Military officials say Abu Sayyaf militants had demanded 130 million pesos ($3.1 million) for the release of Atyani and his two crew members.
Muslim rebels from the larger Moro National Liberation Front, which signed a 1996 autonomy deal with the government, meanwhile, clashed with the Abu Sayyaf on Sunday in Patikul's jungles after they failed to convince the extremists to release all their hostages, including Atyani and two European men, after more than two weeks of negotiations, Freyra told The Associated Press.
At least six Moro rebels have been killed and scores have been wounded from both sides, officials said.
It was the first major bloody confrontation between the two insurgent groups, which have co-existed for years and at times were suspected of collaborating on kidnappings and backing each other in clashes against government troops in predominantly Muslim Sulu.
Moro commander Khabir Malik said his group had taken the initiative to seek the freedom of the hostages to help the government clean up the image of Sulu, where the Abu Sayyaf has carried out deadly bombings, kidnappings and beheadings, primarily in the early 2000s.
U.S.-backed military offensives have crippled the Abu Sayyaf in recent years, but it remains a national security threat. Washington has listed the group, which has about 380 armed fighters, as a terrorist organization.
Moro National Liberation Front rebels were not disarmed when they signed a peace deal with the government. They have settled back to their Sulu communities but have clashed with government troops periodically while negotiating for more concessions under the 1996 peace deal with the government.
Atyani, who interviewed Osama bin Laden and his aides in Afghanistan about three months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, traveled to Sulu with Manila-based Vela and Letriro to work on a documentary about the country's volatile south and possibly interview Abu Sayyaf militants in impoverished Sulu, Freyra and other officials said.
The other hostages believed to be still held by the Abu Sayyaf include two European bird watchers, who were seized in February last year, a Japanese treasure hunter, a Malaysian national and a Filipino resident of Sulu, according to officials.
A former Australian soldier was separately being held by the Abu Sayyaf either on nearby Basilan island or the Zamboanga peninsula, also in the south.
On Friday, Washington renewed a longstanding warning to Americans not to travel to Sulu "due to the high threat of kidnapping ... and violence linked to insurgency and terrorism there."
The Abu Sayyaf is an extremist offshoot of a Muslim rebellion that has been raging in the predominantly Catholic nation's south for decades. The violence has been fueled by abject poverty, corruption, proliferation of illegal weapons and weak law enforcement.