US hostage boy escapes in Philippines jungle

 

A kidnapped American teenage boy escaped from suspected al-Qa'ida-linked
militants and wandered without shoes for two days in a southern
Philippine jungle before villagers found him, ending his five-month
captivity, officials said today.

Kevin Lunsmann, 14, told his four armed captors that he would take a bath in a stream and then made a dash for freedom Friday in Basilan province, said police Senior Supt. Edwin de Ocampo. The boy followed a river down a mountain until villagers found him late the next day, de Ocampo said.

Exhausted, hungry and still stunned, the boy initially fled from the villagers, de Ocampo said.

"He was in fear so there was a bit of a chase before the villagers convinced him that they were friends," de Ocampo told The Associated Press. He said the boy was fine, but was exhausted and had bruises on his arms and feet.

Initial reports had said the boy was freed by his captors.

Zamboanga City Mayor Celso Lobregat said he has been flown to Manila and turned over to US officials there.

The US Ambassador Harry Thomas said the boy would be reunited with his family soon.

"In this holiday season nothing makes me happier than knowing that an innocent victim is returned to his family in time for holiday celebrations," Thomas said in a statement. "I also want to acknowledge the courage of Kevin himself, and his family, throughout this long ordeal."

Thomas said there would be a "speedy investigation and prosecution of all those involved in the kidnapping of American citizens."

Lobregat said the boy has talked by phone with his Filipino-American mother, Gerfa Yeatts Lunsmann, who was in the United States. He, his mother and a Filipino cousin were vacationing with relatives on an island near Zamboanga City when they were snatched July 12 and taken by boat to nearby Basilan.

The captors then called the family in Campbell County, Virginia, to demand a ransom, officials said.

The mother was freed two months ago after she was dropped off by boat at a wharf on Basilan. The boy's Filipino cousin escaped from their captors last month when Filipino army forces managed to get near an Abu Sayyaf camp in the mountains of Basilan, about 550 miles (880 kilometers) south of Manila.

Lobregat said he was unaware if any ransom changed hands.

Army Col. Ricardo Visaya said the kidnappers were believed led by Abu Sayyaf militant Puruji Indama, who is notorious for ransom kidnappings and beheadings. Troops were hunting down the militants and clashed with one group in Akbar town, near Lamitan, which may have distracted the kidnappers and gave Lunsmann a chance to flee, he said.

When Visaya asked the boy if he was freed, which would indicate that ransom was paid, or escaped, Lunsmann replied that he fled from his captors. "No, I really did it myself," he quoted Lunsmann as telling him. Visaya said he later handed the boy to American troops based in Basilan.

Ransom kidnappings have long been a problem in the impoverished region and are blamed mostly on the Abu Sayyaf, an al-Qaida-linked group on a list of U.S. terrorist organizations, and its allied armed groups. The militants are notorious for kidnappings, beheadings and bombings.

The Abu Sayyaf, which has less than 400 armed fighters, was founded on Basilan in the 1990s as an offshoot of a violent Muslim insurgency that has been raging for decades. Hundreds of U.S. troops have been stationed in the southern Philippines, including Basilan, to train and equip Philippine forces but are barred from local combat.

On Monday, suspected militants abducted Australian Warren Richard Rodwell, 53, from his seaside house in Zamboanga Sibugay province, near Basilan.

The Abu Sayyaf are believed to be still holding an Indian, a Malaysian and a Japanese in their jungle strongholds on Jolo island, near Basilan.

AP

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