A Norwegian man freed after almost a year in captivity by the Abu Sayyaf terror group in the Philippines says the experience was “devastating”.
Kjartan Sekkingstad said that he and his fellow captives, two of whom were Canadians who were subsequently beheaded, were treated like slaves.
Sekkingstad was freed on September 17. He was one of four captives seized by the extremist gang at a resort he ran on Samal Island in September 2015.
Sekkingstad said that he was regularly threatened with execution.
Two of his fellow captives, Canadians John Ridsel and Robert Hall, were beheaded earlier this year. A Philippine woman, Marites Flor, was freed in June.
“I am very happy to be alive and free,” Mr. Sekkingstad told reporters following a meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte and Norwegian Embassy officials in Davao City, the president’s hometown. “It’s a wonderful feeling.”
When he arrived in Davao City, the Norwegian was heavily bearded and wearing a camouflage jacket and carrying a backpack that he said had stopped a bullet and saved his life during a clash between troops and militants. He was clean-shaven and wearing fresh clothes when he met the president.
Sekkingstad told reporters upon arriving in Davao City that the Abu Sayyaf militants had forced him and the other captives to act as porters.
He said that after the beheadings began he was told constantly that he would be executed, and survived several clashes between the militants and Philippine troops.
“We were treated like slaves,’’ he said, describing the captivity as “devastating.”
The two Canadians were killed after Canada’s government refused to pay millions of dollars in ransom to the militants, who have sworn allegiance to Islamic State and have earlier links to al Qaeda and have carried out bombings, assassinations and kidnappings for ransom, often ending in murder.
Duterte said recently that 50 million pesos ($1.1 million) had been paid to Abu Sayyaf as ransom for Sekkingstad. Subsequently, the president said that the group wanted even more money. He didn’t elaborate on the source of the payments or how they were made.
Sekkingstad was released September 17 in Jolo, the capital of Sulu, a predominantly Muslim and impoverished island south of Manila, but had to stay there overnight because of bad weather. He was expected to fly to Manila later on September 18. It was unclear if and when he will return to Norway.
Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said that three Indonesian fishermen who had been kidnapped recently by Abu Sayyaf were released September 18. He said he was “unaware if any ransom has been paid.” The Indonesians were flown to the military’s regional command center in western Mindanao island and handed over to Indonesian authorities.
Abu Sayyaf is believed to still hold 11 foreigners and six Filipinos captive, the military said. The group is believed to have about 400 members.
Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg welcomed the release of Sekkingstad and thanked Duterte and presidential peace adviser Jose Dureza, who negotiated the release, for working to free him.
“This has been a challenging case, and has put an indescribable strain on Mr. Sekkingstad himself and his family and friends,” Solberg said September 18. “The violence committed against innocent people by the Abu Sayyaf terrorist organization can only be met by our condemnation and disgust.”
Abu Sayyaf has come under recent pressure from the Philippine armed forces as Duterte ordered a new offensive against them. The group responded with a deadly bomb attack September 2 in Davao City that killed 15 people and injured dozens more.
Sekkingstad was handed over by his Abu Sayyaf captors to rebels from the larger Moro National Liberation Front, which has signed a peace deal with the Philippine government and helped negotiate his release. On September 18, he was handed over to Philippine authorities, along with three Indonesian fishermen freed separately by the Abu Sayyaf.
Sekkingstad said he survived more than a dozen clashes between Philippine forces and his captors in the lush jungles of Sulu province.
Sekkingstad was kidnapped from a yacht club he helped managed on southern Samal Island on September 21, 2015, along with Canadians Ridsdel and Hall and Hall’s Filipino girlfriend, Marites Flor.
Ridsdel was beheaded in April, and Hall was decapitated in June after ransom deadlines lapsed. When Flor was freed in June, she recounted in horror how the militants rejoiced while watching the beheadings.