Philippine militants free Australian held for 15 months

Australian Warren Rodwell emerged Saturday withered from 15 months as a captive of Islamic militants in the lawless southern Philippines, his ribs protruding but able to smile.

Rodwell, a former soldier, 54, joked with policemen and a journalist who took exclusive video footage of him for AFP at Pagadian city police station on Mindanao island, shortly after his pre-dawn release.

"Lose weight... skeleton," a smiling Rodwell said as he took off his T-shirt for the video camera and pointed at ribs that could be seen hard up against his skin. He then sucked in his stomach to accentuate his weight loss.

Rodwell was clean shaven, except for a moustache, and his hair was cut neatly.

The Philippine military said Rodwell had been released at Pagadian, a port city about 100 kilometres (60 miles) east of Ipil 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 to secure his release.

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 gaunt.

In the last video, apparently taken in January, masked militants carrying M-16 automatic rifles and belts of ammunition threatened to kill Rodwell as he sat with his hands bound by rope.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard expressed relief over Rodwell's release and congratulated Philippine authorities for their handling of the case.

"I do want to pay tribute to the government of the Philippines and their agencies and personnel, they worked so hard to secure Mr Rodwell's release," Gillard told reporters.

After a brief stay in Pagadian, Rodwell was flown by helicopter to a military base in Zamboanga, one of the major cities in the southern Philippines, where he received medical treatment.

Two soldiers had to support Rodwell as he hobbled away from the helicopter and into a van, according to video footage released by the Philippine military. The media were not allowed access to him at the base.

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.

The group 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.

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

But Rodwell settled in Ipil with his Filipina wife, Miraflor Gutang, about eight months before he was abducted, according to local authorities.

He had worked as a teacher in China before marrying Gutang, whom he met on the Internet.

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

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

The Abu Sayyaf was set up in the early 1990s with funding from the Al-Qaeda network.

About 600 US Special Forces troops have been rotating in the southern Philippines since 2002 to train Filipino troops how to quash the Abu Sayyaf.

However the Abu Sayyaf has remained an enduring threat, partly because the militants operate with the support of local Muslim communities.