Security forces will continue the hunt for Abu Sayyaf members and will not pull out troops in Sulu even after the bandit group freed two German captives, Armed Forces chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang said.

“No pullout. We’re all out to conduct law enforcement operations,” Catapang said in a text message late Friday.

The military chief made the remark when asked what will happen to operations mounted against the Abu Sayyaf after the bandits freed Germans Stefan Viktor Okonek and Henrike Dielen.

More than 2,000 soldiers from five Marine battalions, two Army infantry battalions, a company of Army Special Forces, and military K-9 units are in Sulu, making it the province with the biggest concentration of military forces.

The count does not include Navy sailors on vessels, Air Force pilots manning combat helicopters, and “force multipliers” comprised of armed civilian volunteers.

The Abu Sayyaf, according to the military, has an estimated armed strength of about 400 and an undetermined number of supporters.

Catapang, in a visit to Sulu last Sunday, said the bandit group was still holding some 15 hostages, of whom nine are foreigners including Okonek and Dielen.

Okonek, who the Abu Sayyaf had threatened to behead Friday afternoon, was freed along with Dielen in Patikul town 8:50 p.m. the same day, Catapang said.

The Germans, abducted by Abu Sayyaf men in waters between Palawan and Borneo on April 25, were released by their captors in Brgy. Kaday Mapallam, Chief Supt. Noel delos Reyes, director of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao police, said in a separate text message.

Okonek and Dielen were later brought to the 2nd Marine Brigade headquarters in Camp Teodulfo Bautista, Brgy. Busbus, Jolo, for medical attention, Delos Reyes said.

Military and police officials confirmed the release about an hour after Abu Rami, spokesperson of the Abu Sayyaf, announced it in an interview by a radio station in Zamboanga City.

“Walang labis, walang kulang,” Abu Rami said when asked if ransom was paid. The Abu Sayyaf had demanded P250 million in exchange for the Germans.

Following their release, Okonek and Dielen were transported to Zamboanga City on a Navy vessel. 

Okonek, in his 70s, appeared thin, was limping, and had a dextrose on during his stay at the Navy office in Majini Pier, Zamboanga, video clips provided by the AFP Western Mindanao Command showed.

Okonek and Dielen were flown to Manila hours later, and arrived at the Villamor Air Base around 6:45 a.m. Saturday, AFP spokesman Maj. Gen. Domingo Tutaan said.

“The Embassy of Germany made arrangements for this and has taken custody of them,” Tutaan said.

The military previously said that the German government had been negotiating for Okonek and Dielen’s release.

Tutaan and other military officials, however, could not confirm whether money had indeed exchanged hands.

Lieutenant Colonel Harold Cabunoc, AFP public affairs chief, insisted that “military pressure” forced the Abu Sayyaf to free the Germans.

“Kung may nagbayad diyan, hindi namin alam, kung German ba ‘yan o ano, basta sa side namin hindi kami nakipag-negotiate sa kanila, nag-deploy kami ng tropa,” he told reporters.

Cabunoc confirmed an earlier radio report that soldiers had surrounded the bandits holding Okonek.

“As early as kahapon (Friday), madaling-araw pa, pinalibutan namin… may special operations, may mga snipers tayo dun pero may utos din kasi na i-ensure na hindi mabaril ‘yung hostage,” he said.

Cabunoc said pursuit operations are now ongoing to capture Abu Sayyaf members and recover their remaining captives.

“We are pursuing them, full scale ang deployment dahil ang gusto ni chief of staff ay ipakita din naman ng Armed Forces na hindi lang naman Germans ang dahilan at nagdeploy tayo, we are thinking about the 10 other hostages as well,” he said. (John Roson)

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