"Thank you, thank you, thank you."
Those were the first words uttered by a grateful and relieved Chan Sai Chuin, 32, upon his release by the Abu Sayyaf terror group after 177 days in captivity on the southern Philippine island of Jolo.
Profusely thanking and hugging a team of Malaysian and Filipino negotiators who brought him safely back to Sandakan in the Sabah east coast by speedboat at 6.45am yesterday, Chan also told them: "I have lost a lot of weight ... good also."
The fish breeder was reported by sources as looking healthy despite his ordeal since he was snatched form his farm in Kampung Sapong in Kunak on June 16.
It is understood that Chan was freed at about 11.30pm on Tuesday, following lengthy negotiations between Filipino emissaries and the Abu Sayyaf group led by the Sadawan brothers in Jolo.
No confirmation was available if any of the 3 million ringgit (US$868,000) ransom, said to be for board and lodging, had reached the hands of the gunmen.
According to the sources, negotiations for the release of marine policeman Kons Zakiah Aleip, 26, are ongoing.
Kons Zakiah is being held by another Abu Sayyaf group led by Al Habsi who has also demanded a 3 million ringgit ransom. He was grabbed from the Mabul island on July 12.
Negotiations hit a snag about 10 days ago and nearly led to a bloody gun battle, scuttling efforts to free him together with Chan.
When told by The Star about Chan's release yesterday morning, his wife Chin Pek Nyen, 42, said: "Many people have called me. I am not with him yet. If he is here, I will be hugging him."
However, sources said Chin was in Sandakan later in the day and reunited with her husband at a hotel in town.
Last month, as the deadline to pay the ransom loomed with a threat to behead Chan issued by the kidnappers, a frantic Chin publicly appealed for help to secure her husband's release, even making a trip to Parliament House and meeting businessmen and potential donors in Kuala Lumpur.
Chan, who was born in Ipoh, underwent a medical examination and was de-briefed by the police.
He is expected to return to the fish farm that he started with some partners hardly three months before his abduction.
At press time, Sabah police commissioner Jalaluddin Abdul Rahman could not be reached for comments on the release.