Members of the notorious Abu Sayyaf militant group have released a Norwegian national, one year after he was taken hostage in a high-end tourist resort.
Officials in Manila said Kjartan Sekkingstad was released Saturday and would soon be handed over to authorities.
An adviser to President Rodrigo Duterte said Sekkingstad was handed over by Abu Sayyaf militants to Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), another militant group based in the province of Sulu.
Presidential Peace Adviser Jesus Dureza said Sekkingstad would be staying overnight with the founder of MNLF, Nur Misuari, due to heavy rain, adding that the Norwegian national would be flown to the southern city of Davao on Sunday after the MNLF handed him to authorities.
Other officials said President Duterte would personally go to Davao to receive Sekkingstad.
Norwegian officials reacted to the long-anticipated news of release, calling it a positive development. They said cooperation with Manila would continue until Sekkingstad was brought to safety.
“According to Philippine authorities, Sekkingstad is now in a relatively safe place,” Norway's Foreign Minister Borge Brende said, adding, “We refrain from celebrating until Sekkingstad has been safely handed over to Philippine authorities.”
Sekkingstad was abducted in September 2015 near Samal island, about 500 kilometers to the west of Sulu. Along him were a Filipino woman, who has already been freed, and two Canadians, namely John Ridsdel and Robert Hall. The militants beheaded Ridsdel and Hall in April, saying the government had failed to respond to their demands, which were reportedly ransoms of some 300 million pesos ($6.5 million) for each.
Sulu, a remote archipelago known as the hideout of Abu Sayyaf and other militants, has long been a hotbed of sectarianism and terror activities in the south of the Philippines. The MNLF has accepted to engage in peace talks with the government and is believed to have played a key role in securing the release of Sekkingstad.
Abu Sayyaf is an old branch of al-Qaeda which recently pledged allegiance to Daesh, a Takfiri terror group based in the Middle East. The group mainly relies on kidnapping for its finances and many say its ideological and religious claims are meant to hide its focus on the lucrative business.
Thousands of troops were deployed last month to southern territories after Duterte ordered a massive military operation against Abu Sayyaf. However, fierce resistance by the militants has made it difficult for the military to make any tangible breakthrough.