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Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia - Three Malaysians finally arrived home on Sunday after being set free by Muslim rebels who had held them hostage on the island of Jolo in the southern Philippines for nearly four months.
They landed at an airport in Kota Kinabalu, capital of the east Malaysian state of Sabah. A total of 21 people were kidnapped on April 23 from Sipadan island in the same state and taken to a hideout in Jolo, 960km south of Manila.
Ken Fong Yin Ken, Kua Yu Loong and Basilius Jim were flown in on a Malaysian government aircraft piloted by Ken Fong's father James Fong.
"After waiting for four months, I am very happy that everything is finally over and my husband is back," said a tearful Emily Mijoh, wife of Basilius, a forest ranger.
Family members hugged and kissed the freed hostages as they walked down from the plane.
The Malaysians and a Filipino hostage were handed over to an emissary on Friday but were unable to make their way to Zamboanga, main town on Jolo island, until early on Sunday.
The rebels are still holding a dozen European and South African hostages and a Filipino resort worker.
Nine of the others are tourists also snatched from Sipadan. Three are French television journalists abducted last month on Jolo while covering the crisis.
The rebels had already freed six Malaysians in three batches in June and July.
Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi thanked the Philippine government and the negotiators for the release of all the Malaysian hostages.
"We are feeling great. No words can describe how happy we are," said Ken Fong, 28, a dive master in Sipadan.
He told a news conference the hostages had been treated well but at times faced shortages of food and clean drinking water.
After being kidnapped on Easter Sunday 17 weeks ago, the hostages lived mostly on boiled rice and a scrap or two of fish each day, and had only rain water to drink. Some have been bitten by scorpions, and most are exhausted and depressed.
The three freed hostages were later driven to a local hospital for a check-up.
"We are glad our prayers have finally been answered. We have been praying very hard at home and at the church," said Chung Shuk Moi, mother of Ken Fong.
Ken Fong, sporting long hair tied in a pony tail, said the group had last seen the Caucasian hostages nearly a week ago. "They were doing fine," he said.
Prospects for the release of the other hostages dimmed after the rebels backed off from a deal on Sunday fearing a military attack, and negotiators said talks had collapsed.
Libya, which has organised a major initiative to resolve the crisis, said it would end its mediation unless it received assurances from the Philippine government that there would be no military action. - Reuters