MANILA, Philippines — Two German tourists who have been missing for three months had been abducted by Abu Sayyaf militants and were being held "unharmed" by the al-Qaida-linked gunmen in the jungle in the southern Philippines, security officials said Thursday.
Lt. Gen. Rustico Guerrero, commander of the military's Western Mindanao Command, said the government has ordered troops to locate the Germans in Sulu province and ensure their safe recovery but he declined to say what the military intends to do.
"The latest is that they're unharmed," Guerrero told The Associated Press.
German officials have declined to comment on the reported abductions.
Stefan Okonek and his female companion, Henrike Dielen, were taken at gunpoint from a yacht between Malaysia's Sabah state on Borneo Island and the western Philippine province of Palawan in April and then taken by boat to predominantly Muslim Sulu, about 950 kilometers (590 miles) south of Manila, where the Abu Sayyaf has held other hostages, four military and police officials separately told The AP.
A police general said the Germans were seen once by some villagers while washing up in a mountain stream, guarded by the militants.
Philippine police officials have obtained a picture of a Caucasian man and woman squatting and holding onto a German flag while being surrounded by heavily armed men with covered faces. The gunmen in camouflage stand in front of a black flag often used by Abu Sayyaf militants and thick foliage.
Authorities are trying to verify if the Caucasians in the picture, a copy of which was seen by The AP, are the Germans.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to reporters.
The German foreign ministry formed a crisis team and is in touch with Philippine authorities. It refused to provide more details in line with a policy of not discussing kidnapping cases.
The Abu Sayyaf, Guerrero said, is currently holding about 10 hostages in Sulu's jungles, including the Germans and two European birdwatchers who were kidnapped two years ago.
The militants have been using the birdwatchers as "human shields" from relentless government offensives, he said.
The kidnappings are a reminder of the threats still posed by the Abu Sayyaf despite more than a decade of U.S.-backed Philippine military offensives that has crippled the militants. Their ransom kidnappings have alarmed nearby countries like Malaysia.
In 2000, Abu Sayyaf gunmen snatched 21 European tourists, including three Germans, and Malaysian and Filipino workers from Malaysia's Sipadan diving resort and brought them to Sulu, where they eventually were freed in exchange for large ransom payments.