Abu Sayyaf militants free 3 aid workers

MANILA — Suspected Abu Sayyaf militants have freed three abducted aid workers in the southern Philippines after the government withheld anti-poverty funds, prompting an impoverished town to pressure the rebels to release the captives, officials said on Wednesday. Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said the three aid workers and a companion were kidnapped on Thursday in remote Talipao town in Sulu province where they were checking on families who received aid and working on another anti-poverty project. Due to the kidnappings, the government withheld the cash grants to thousands of poor families to ensure the safety of aid workers. Talipao officials then exerted pressure on the militants, who separately freed their hostages this week without ransom payment, Soliman said. “We didn’t want to put anyone else in a very risky situation,” Soliman said. Soliman said town officials negotiated with the gunmen to free the hostages. A military official said armed relatives of one of the kidnapped workers threatened the family of an Abu Sayyaf militant, helping to rachet up pressure on the kidnappers. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters. More than 4 million families across the Philippines have received cash under a government program that requires the “poorest of the poor” to get regular medical check-ups and ensure their children attend school classes in exchange for financial aid. The Abu Sayyaf, which has about 300 armed fighters split into several factions, was organized in the early 1990s in the south and vowed to wage jihad, or holy war, but the early combat deaths of its key commanders sent the group on a path of criminality. It’s been crippled by government operations but endures largely due to huge ransoms from kidnappings. Abu Sayyaf now holds about 10 hostages, including two German tourists seized in April and two birdwatchers, one Dutch and the other Swiss, who were kidnapped two years ago. — AP