MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Two German tourists who have been missing for three months had been abducted by Abu Sayyaf militants and were being held "unharmed" by the al-Qaida-linked gunmen in their jungle encampments in the southern Philippines, security officials said Thursday.
Lt. Gen. Rustico Guerrero, commander of the military's Western Mindanao Command, said the government has ordered troops to locate the Germans in Sulu province and ensure their safe recovery but he declined to say what the military intends to do.
"The latest is that they're unharmed," Guerrero told The Associated Press.
German officials have declined to comment on the reported abductions.
Stefan Okonek and his female companion, Henrike Dielen, were taken at gunpoint from a yacht between Malaysia's Sabah state on Borneo Island and the western Philippine province of Palawan sometime in April then taken by boat to Sulu, a jungle province in the south where the Abu Sayyaf has held other hostages, four military and police officials separately told The AP.
Their empty yacht has been recovered by Philippine authorities.
The officials, who have helped deal with Abu Sayyaf kidnappings, spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to reporters.
The German foreign ministry formed a crisis team and is in touch with Philippine authorities. It refused to provide more details in line with a policy of not discussing kidnapping cases.
The Germans were being held by an Abu Sayyaf commander, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, in Sulu's mountainous Patikul town. On-and-off military offensives in Patikul, however, may prompt the militants to move their captives to other areas, possibly in the nearby town of Indanan, the officials said.
Sawadjaan had two brothers also linked by the military and police to several Abu Sayyaf kidnappings for ransom. One brother died because of an illness and the other in a clash with soldiers after the militants kidnapped three workers of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2009.
The Abu Sayyaf, Guerrero said, is currently holding about 10 hostages in Sulu's jungles, including the Germans and two European birdwatchers who were kidnapped two years ago.
The militants have been using the European birdwatchers as "human shields" from relentless government offensives, he said.
The kidnappings are a reminder of the threats still posed by the Abu Sayyaf despite more than a decade of U.S.-backed Philippine military offensives that has crippled the militants. Their ransom kidnappings have alarmed nearby countries like Malaysia.
In 2000, Abu Sayyaf gunmen snatched 21 European tourists, including three Germans, and Malaysian and Filipino workers from Malaysia's Sipadan diving resort and brought them to Sulu, where they eventually were freed in exchange for large ransom payments.
Associated Press writer Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.