According to Macon, Georgia's The Telegraph, Jordanian TV journalist Baker Atyani, age unknown, has identified the leader of an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group known as Abu Sayyaf that held him for 18 months in the jungles of the southern Philippines after luring him with a promise of an interview.
Appearing gaunt and bearded, the former hostage was brought to a hospital in Sulu province under heavy guard after security forces took him into custody late Wednesday (December 4).
Atyani said that Abu Sayyaf commander, Jul Asman Sawadjaan, plotted his kidnapping in June last year with the help of his fighters and civilians in the predominantly Muslim southern province.
Two Philippine security officers said authorities were verifying intelligence that Sawadjaan had died due to an illness before Atyani walked free.
Sawadjaan is one of the few surviving Abu Sayyaf commanders based in the jungles of Sulu's mountainous Patikul town and has been linked to several Abu Sayyaf abductions and attacks involving beheadings, bombings and ransom kidnappings.
"There's nothing better than freedom," Atyani said in the hospital, thanking Filipino officials and people who worked for his release.
COMMENT: Atyani gained prominence for interviewing Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan a few months before the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Accompanied by two Filipino crewmen, Atyani traveled to Sulu's jungles to interview Abu Sayyaf militants. His two companions were freed in February 2002, but Atyani was kept as a hostage.
Sulu military commander Col. José Cenabre said that Atyani either was freed or escaped from his captors. Atyani said that he escaped on his third attempt in the captivity after sensing that the gunmen had let their guard down and by studying the route leading to a road by the sea.
Col. Cenabre said it was difficult to verify speculations that a ransom was paid.
Atyani's al-Arabiya News Channel, based in Dubai and owned by a Saudi broadcaster, said in a statement that the kidnappers handed him over to the local governor's office late Wednesday and that Philippine authorities would facilitate his return to Jordan.
Two Philippine security officers who dealt with Atyani's kidnapping said authorities were verifying information that his captor, Sawadjaan, had grown weak in recent months and died due to an unspecified illness shortly before Atyani gained his freedom.
When asked about Sawadjaan, Atyani said he heard that the Abu Sayyaf commander was suffering from a kidney ailment, but was not sure what had happened to him.
The Abu Sayyaf still hold at least 17 captives in their jungle strongholds, including two European bird watchers who were kidnapped last year, Cenabre said. He added that Atyani told him he did not see any of the other captives.