Philippine militants free Australian held for 15 months

An extremely gaunt but smiling Australian Warren Rodwell walked free on Saturday after 15 months being held captive by Islamic militants in the lawless southern Philippines.

Rodwell, a former soldier aged 54, joked with policemen and a journalist who took video footage of him for AFP at Pagadian city police station on Mindanao island, shortly after his kidnappers released him early on Saturday morning.

"Lose weight... skeleton," Rodwell said as he smiled in the video, after he took off his T-shirt and pointed at ribs that could be seen hard up against his skin.

The Philippine military said Rodwell had been released at Pagadian, a port city about 100 kilometres (60 miles) east of the town where he had been living with his Filipina wife before he was kidnapped on December 5, 2011.

Islamic militants posing as policemen broke into his house and abducted him, and had initially demanded $2 million. Philippine and Australian authorities refused to say on Saturday if any ransom had been paid.

The kidnappers, members of the Abu Sayyaf militant group, had previously released a series of video clips of Rodwell as proof he was still in their custody and which showed him becoming progressively more gaunt.

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr released a statement welcoming Rodwell's release and congratulating Philippine authorities on their handling of the case.

"The Philippines government had the lead role in this case and deserve congratulations for their tireless efforts on Mr Rodwell's behalf," Carr said.

"The Rodwell family has shown enormous courage throughout this ordeal... the focus now is on Mr Rodwell's speedy recovery."

Carr said Rodwell would be taken to a safe location.

The Abu Sayyaf is one of many armed Islamist groups operating in the southern Philippines, which has been home to a deadly Muslim separatist insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives since the 1970s.

It is believed to have only a few hundred militants but has been blamed for the worst terror attacks in recent Philippine history.

It also has a long history of kidnapping foreigners, Christians and local business people for ransom.

Rodwell settled in Ipil with his Filipina wife, Miraflor Gutang, in 2011, according to local authorities. The former soldier had worked as a teacher in China before marrying Gutang, whom he met on the Internet.

Many foreign governments warn their citizens to avoid the violence-plagued parts of the southern Philippines, including Ipil, because of the high risk of kidnappings.

While the Abu Sayyaf claims to be motivated by religion and a quest for an independent homeland in the southern Philippines, local authorities regard the group as primarily a kidnap-for-ransom gang.

The group is believed to be holding other hostages, including some foreigners.

The Abu Sayyaf was set up in the troubled region in the early 1990s with funding from the Al-Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden and was initially led by a Filipino militant who fought against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

About 600 US Special Forces troops have been rotating in the southern Philippines since 2002, assigned to train Filipino counter-terrorism troops in how to quash groups like Abu Sayyaf.

However the Philippines has not been able to eliminate the Abu Sayyaf, who operate with the support of local Muslim communities in remote areas of the south.