MANILA, April 6, 2011 (AFP) - Philippine tribal gunmen on Wednesday freed 12 hostages after the group of teachers and a student endured a four-day ordeal in a remote jungle area, the government said.
Negotiators convinced the near-illiterate gunmen from the forest-dwelling Manobo tribe to let the group go in exchange for fair treatment of a relative jailed for kidnap, Interior Minister Jesse Robredo said.
"As of 6:00 am (2200 GMT Tuesday) I was informed by the police that the hostages are on their way down from the mountain. It appears that all of them were unharmed," Robredo said in a nationwide radio broadcast.
Security forces are to launch a manhunt after the freed hostages reach the safety of the town of La Prosperidad, which may take several hours, Robredo said.
Five Manobo gunmen seized 15 teachers and children on the largely lawless southern island of Mindanao on Saturday in a bid to get the government to free Ondo Perez, a jailed relative.
Perez is in jail and awaiting trial for murder as well as for kidnapping a group of 79 people, including teachers and schoolchildren, in La Prosperidad in 2009.
The gunmen, who police said did not understand Philippine legal processes, freed three of the hostages on Sunday and Monday and later received assurances from the government that Perez would be tried fairly.
"That was the only thing we could offer," Robredo said Wednesday. "They did not demand ransom and none was offered."
At the same time, the gunmen were made to understand in no uncertain terms that the government would use force if the hostages were not freed soon, Robredo said.
"President (Benigno) Aquino had standing orders to be patient in negotiations, but he was very firm in saying that certain things cannot be negotiated," Robredo added.
"They (the kidnappers) will be made to account for what they did."
Resource-rich but impoverished Mindanao makes up roughly the southern third of the Philippines. Communist and Muslim insurgencies have claimed thousands of lives on the island over recent decades.
Robredo said the kidnappers were former members of local militia forces numbering several thousands that were given guns to help defend remote communities in Mindanao and elsewhere from guerrilla attacks.
"After they were separated from the (government-backed militia force), their guns were not recovered and that is why they are armed," he said.
He said he had ordered the police forces, which come under his direct supervision, to take steps to disarm former militiamen so they could not use government-issue weapons to commit crime.
Senior members of a Mindanao-based Muslim clan and nearly 200 members of their government-armed militia force are on trial for the November 2009 abductions and murders of 57 people including political rivals and journalists.
Reposted From Cecil Morella of AFP