Indonesia and Malaysia are bolstering security along their borders with the southern Philippines, and an Indonesian official has warned that the area could become “the new Somalia” after a recent surge in martime kidnappings.
Companies that ship coal from Kalimantan to the Philippines have been forced to suspend shipments or change routes after 14 Indonesian sailors were abducted at sea. Abu Sayyaf, a militant group that has declared allegiance to the Islamic State extremist group from its base in the southern Philippines, is demanding a million-dollar ransom for 10 of the men.
Malaysia, which has seen four of its nationals kidnapped, has allocated 50 million ringgit (U.S. $12.8 million) to beef up security in its easternmost state of Sabah to contain trans-border crime in the area, the nation’s police chief told BenarNews.
The Royal Malaysia Police is establishing forward operating bases on islands in a special security zone off the state’s coast “to anticipate any future threats in the waters of Sabah,” said Police Inspector-General Khalid Abu Bakar.
Malaysia had earlier designated the area as the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM), and bolstered security there following a daring 2013 incursion by a band of fighters loyal to a Sulu Archipelago sultan claiming the territory.
Indonesia, meanwhile, has invited foreign ministers and top defense officials from the Philippines and Malaysia to Jakarta on May 3 to discuss safeguarding maritime trade routes among the three countries.
“The agenda will be the possibility of joint patrols in the area,” Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Binsar Panjaitan told reporters in Jakarta on Thursday, in announcing the meeting.
“We don’t want this area to become the new Somalia,” Luhut said, referring to the Horn of Africa country whose pirates raked in hundreds of millions of dollars in ransom payments between 2005 and 2011. Somalia also is home to al-Shabaab, a militant group linked with al-Qaeda.
On Tuesday, Luhut said the shipping company that employs the 10 crew members kidnapped on March 29 had agreed to pay a ransom, but negotiations were still under way.
Abu Sayyaf has demanded a ransom of 50 million pesos (U.S. $1.07 million) for the 10 sailors.
The group for years has run a kidnapping racket from Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago in the southern Philippines. Last week, it issued a video in which it threatened to behead one of four hostages on April 28, if a ransom demand for two Canadians, a Norwegian and a Filipina were not paid by then.
In November, Abu Sayyaf beheaded a Malaysian citizen, Bernard Then, who had been snatched from a seaside restaurant in Sabah in May and taken to the southern Philippines.
Authorities are not yet sure who abducted four more Indonesian sailors on April 15, although Malaysian officials originally pinned the blame on Abu Sayyaf, based on accounts from six crew members who escaped and made it to shore in Sabah.
A spokeswoman for PT Patria Maritim Lines, whose crew was kidnapped March 29, declined to comment on ransom negotiations with Abu Sayyaf.
She said the company had suspended all shipments after the incident, pending improved security conditions in waters near the Tawi-Tawi islands, where the kidnapping occurred.
“Even if another company requests a coal delivery to the Philippines, we will turn them down for now,” Sara Lubis told BenarNews.
PT Kideco Jaya Agung, a company based in Paser, East Kalimantan, said it was still shipping coal to the Philippines but had been forced to change routes to avoid the threat of piracy in waters near Tawi-Tawi.
“We’ve changed the distribution route of ships carrying coal exports to the Philippines. We use the Java Sea and Makassar Strait to reach the Philippines,” company official Siswoko told BenarNews.
New bases in Sabah
In Manila, Philippines Secretary of Foreign Affairs Jose Rene Almendras assured Malaysian counterpart Anifah Aman that his government was “taking all the necessary measures” to ensure the safe release of four Malaysian sailors kidnapped April 1, a Malaysian Foreign Ministry statement said Friday.
The new security outposts being set up in ESSCOM zone off Sabah’s east coast will be manned by Marine Police, Special Forces and Air Operations Force members, among other units, Police Inspector-General Khalid told Benar.
A new forward base has been operational since April 11 at Mabul Island, while another on Bangi Island would be activated soon, he said. Mabul lies off the southern coast of the eastern tip of Sabah, and Banggi lies off its northern coast.
On Monday, Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein announced that the ministry would station six MD-530 G light helicopters in the area by the end of 2016.
Sabah Police Commissioner Abd. Harun Rashid told BenarNews that the choppers would strengthen security in the zone.
Malaysia police were ready to assist Indonesian security forces in combatting piracy in the area, he added.
"Malaysian police and the Indonesian security forces must work together to find ways of a more coordinated action. We are ready for any further action by parties involved, including assisting on the kidnapping," he said.
Gunawan in Balikpapan, East Kalimantan, Indonesia contributed to this report.