Philippine soldiers carry bodies toward a helicopter as pursuit operations continue in Patikul, southern Philippines, on May 31. (Joint Task Force Sulu/AP)By Regine CabatoMay 31 at 7:28 AM
MANILA — A Dutch birdwatcher who spent seven years as a hostage in the Philippines was on the brink of being freed when he was killed in a crossfire during a battle between radical Islamist militants and soldiers Friday, authorities said.
Ewold Horn, 59, was being held by 30 members of the Abu Sayyaf Group on the island of Sulu when they were attacked by soldiers in a battle that lasted an hour and a half.
“Horn was shot by one of his guards when he tried to escape from the Abu Sayyaf,” said Brig. Gen. Divino Rey Pabayo Jr., commander of Joint Task Force Sulu.
Soldiers recovered Horn’s body and that of Abu Sayyaf leader Radullan Sahiron’s second wife, Mingayan Sahiron, after the fight. The organization is believed to have links to the extremist Islamic State group.
The military estimated that six militants were killed and 12 wounded, while eight soldiers suffered gunshot and shrapnel wounds.
Horn was kidnapped in 2012 along with Swiss birdwatcher Lorenzo Vinciguerra, but the latter escaped in 2014.
Kidnapping for ransom is a common practice for Abu Sayyaf, which has been listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. Various abductions, bombings and killings have been attributed to the group, most recently a cathedral bombing in Jolo this year.
While the Islamic State has been weakened in the Middle East, analysts say its presence has grown in Southeast Asia. Three suspects were arrested in Malaysia on Thursday, one of whom was reported to be on the way to Syria through Egypt. Foreign and local Islamic State-affiliated militants were involved in the attempted occupation of the Philippine city of Marawi in 2017.
Abu Sayyaf, which was founded in 1991, was previously linked to al-Qaeda before aligning itself with the rival Islamic State. Its continued existence despite years of military offensives demonstrates the difficulty of stamping out extremist thought in the southern Philippines, which is racked by poverty and conflict.
Lt. Gen. Arnel Dela Vega, chief of the armed forces command in the southwestern region, extended sympathies to Horn’s family.
“We condemn the inhumane acts carried out by Abu Sayyaf members against their captives and the innocent in Sulu,” he said in a statement. “On our part, we vow to sustain our intensive campaign to defeat [them].”
In the days before Horn’s killing, the group was the subject of a focused military operation on the island. The government claimed this week that the militants were “left worn out by relentless offensives” since May 25.
In 2001, Abu Sayyaf was behind a high-profile kidnapping that included three U.S. hostages. Two of them were killed — one, Guillermo Sobero, in a beheading. The other, Martin Burnham, died during a rescue operation.