Foreign Minister Børge Brende could finally “set our joy free” on Saturday, after a week of intense work to secure the release of Norwegian hostage Kjartan Sekkingstad in the Philippines. Now Brende has been assured by Philippine authorities that Sekkingstad is free and in relatively good shape.
Sekkingstad, from Sotra in Western Norway, was seized along with three other hostages by the Islamic insurgent group Abu Sayyaf nearly a year ago. Sekkingstad had been working at a yacht club in the southern portion of the country where Abu Sayyaf is active, and the three others were guests.
Two of them, both men from Canada, were later killed by Abu Sayyaf when ransom demands were not met. A third hostage, a woman from the Philippines, was later released while Sekkingstad had remained in custody.
Norwegian authorities flatly refused to pay any ransom and Sekkingstad’s family in Norway, who have said they understood the ransom refusal as a matter of principle, didn’t have the means to meet the large amounts demanded.
After months of negotiations and even a rescue attempt carried out by Filipino forces, the vice governor of Sulu Province, Abusakar Tan, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that Sekkingstad had been released, was in good shape, “but needs to rest before he can travel onward.”
Brende, who has praised the Philippines’ efforts to free the hostages over the past year, was clearly relieved. “The Philippines authorities have confirmed that Sekkingstad is no longer being held prisoner by the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas,” Brende told NRK after being in contact with the Philippines peace minister Jesus Dureza.
Brende said he had been told that Sekkingstad was now in a “relatively safe place” and that he would “probably be turned over to the Philippines’ authorities on Sunday.”
Brende said authorities in both Norway and the Philippines had been working on Sekkingstad’s release all week but “we wouldn’t set our joy free before Sekkingstad was confirmed to be well” and out of the clutches of Abu Sayyaf.
The circumstances behind Sekkingstad’s release remained unclear, with more information expected early next week. Abu Sayyaf has been taking hostages for nearly 20 years to generate income, and has collected large ransoms. Most of its hostages are eventually released but some have been killed to stress the group’s seriousness and spread fear.
While Norway refused to pay ransom for Sekkingstad’s release, the new Philippines president has vowed a crackdown on Abu Sayyaf. Norway, meanwhile, has been brokering peace talks between the Philippines government and the country’s communist movement, and achieved a ceasefire just last month. Norway has also sent large amount of foreign aid to the Philippines over the years and has long had good relations with the country.