Southern Philippines rebels free 3 Indonesian hostages

MANILA - Abu Sayyaf rebels linked to Islamic State freed three more Indonesian captives on Sunday after a three-month ordeal, the Philippine government said, taking the number of hostages released to nine in the past two weeks.

They were handed over in Sulu to Nur Misuari, founder of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a Muslim rebel group that has signed a peace deal with the government. It was not clear whether a ransom was paid.

During the past two weeks Abu Sayyaf, an Islamist group that has made vast sums of money from the kidnap business, had freed three Indonesians, two Filipinos and a Norwegian man snatched from a resort last year alongside two Canadians who were later beheaded.

The releases come as the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) steps up offensives to flush out the rebels from their island strongholds of Sulu and Basilan.

President Rodrigo Duterte has made destruction of the Abu Sayyaf the top security priority of the military, and has ruled out including it in a nationwide peace process because of its brutality and criminal activities. "These recent breakthroughs were a convergence of efforts that President Duterte initiated, getting the cooperation of the MNLF, the local governments, the stakeholders and the AFP through their ongoing military operations in the area," Jesus Dureza, Duterte's peace negotiator, said in a statement.

Though originally formed with secessionist goals, Abu Sayyaf, which means "bearer of the sword", is seen by security experts more as a group of bandits than separatists.

The group, which has entrenched its network in the impoverished communities of the deep south, is still holding five Malaysians, four Filipinos, two Indonesians and one Netherlands national.