KOTA KINABALU: A two-month barter trade ban between Sabah and southern Philippines and an imminent operation by the Philippines military to flush out Abu Sayyaf militants in Jolo led to the freedom of the four Malaysian seamen who had been held hostage since April 1.
The four Sarawakians â€“ brothers Wong Teck Kang, 31, and Wong Teck Chii, 29, their cousin, Johnny Lau Jung Hien, 21, and Wong Hung Sing, 34 â€“ were released at the coastal village of Patikul on Tuesday night.
They arrived in Sandakan early yesterday.
Jolo island anti-kidnapping activist Prof Octavio Dinampo said the local communities had been pressuring the gunmen to release the tugboat crewmen.
Octavio said the prices of basic goods had escalated in the provinces of Sulu and Tawi Tawi since the Malaysian Government ordered a halt to the barter trade.
The two southernmost Philippine provinces depend on Sabah for most of their consumer goods.
Octavio said prices of commodities â€“ from rice to fuel â€“ more than doubled after the decades-old barter trade was stopped on April 6, and the local community leaders had started pressuring the gunmen to hand over the hostages.
Octavio said the price of a 20kg bag of rice had gone up from about 500 pesos (RM43) to more than 1,000 pesos (RM87) after the barter ban.
He said the gunmen had also been eager to strike a bargain with the Philippine military operations looming.
â€œThe Abu Sayyaf gunmen under the command of Majan Sahinjuan alias Apo Mike had been moving their four captives in the mountainous jungles between the Indanan and Patikul over the past two months to avoid detection by authorities.â€
Octavio said the release came after a series of tense negotiations between intermediaries for the gunmen and Filipino-Malaysian negotiators over the past week.
Apo Mike was believed to have led the gunmen to grab the four seamen from a tugboat in international waters off Pulau Ligitan in Sabahâ€™s east coast Semporna district.
Five other Indonesian crewmen were not taken in the incident at 6.15am on April 1.
In Manila, Philippines military officials confirmed that the four men had been released through negotiators but were uncertain of the details of what had transpired that led to their freedom.
They said the four were taken on a high-powered speedboat for an eight-hour ride from Jolo to Sandakan after the end of the successful negotiations.
Philippine Armed Forces Western Mindanao Command spokesman Major Filemon Tan said the four were taken to the shoreline of Lagasan Higat in the Parang area of Jolo island before being put on a speedboat to Sandakan.