Philippine forces are patrolling the area around Tawi-Tawi island and Sulu by air and sea to locate an armed group that kidnapped two Indonesian fishermen over the weekend, the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) spokesman said Monday.
Five gunmen, suspected to be militants with the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), grabbed the two Indonesians in waters off Kunak, a small coastal town in the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah, before fleeing toward Tawi-Tawi in the southern Philippines on Saturday, according to a Malaysian official.
The kidnappings occurred despite efforts by Philippine and Malaysian security forces to issue warnings about the gunmen. Philippine forces sent out an alert of a boat heading toward Malaysia and Malaysian forces issued their own alert after the kidnappings, according to security officials.
The communication efforts followed talks earlier this month by leaders of both countries to work together to ward off such maritime abductions, which lately have plagued the seas separating the southern Philippines from Borneo island.
After hosting new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Nov. 10, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Duterte had granted permission for Malaysian ships to enter his country’s waters during hot pursuits of kidnappers.
A week later, Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said he had discussed the issue with his counterparts from Indonesia and the Philippines during the Fourth Trilateral Ministerial Level Meeting on the Sulu Seas Initiative.
“Discussions focused heavily on operationalizing joint exercises, coordinated maritime patrols and joint air patrols that are soon to be initiated among the three nations,” Hishammuddin said in a statement following the talks.
ASG, a group that has sought a separate state in the Philippines’ predominantly Muslim south, is believed to have kidnapped Indonesians Saparuddin Kone, 43, and Sawal Maryam, 36. Indonesian officials were made aware of the kidnapping on Saturday and deployed a team from the consulate in Tawau, Malaysia, to Lahad Datu to gather information, an Indonesian Foreign Affairs spokesman said.
After destroying the boat’s communications equipment and stealing cash and mobile phones, the gunmen left 11 other crewmen unharmed, according to Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) commander Wan Abdul Bari Wan Abdul Khalid.
He said Malaysian authorities were alerted by Philippine authorities of a speedboat that they were pursuing near Tawi-Tawi’s Taganak Island.
Wan Abdul said Malaysian security forces were placed on alert at 6:40 p.m. Saturday – about an hour before the incident – because Taganak Island is about 27 km (17 miles) from the coastal town of Sandakan, the site of previous kidnappings. In the past, such cooperation was hampered by the Philippines’ long-standing territorial claim on Sabah.
“We were informed. However, I cannot confirm whether the boat crossed over into Malaysian waters or was involved in the kidnapping,” Wan Abdul told local media on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Westmincom spokesman Maj. Filemon Tan Jr. said Philippine forces were informed by Malaysian authorities that an abduction had been reported at about 7:30 p.m., according to The Philippines Star. The abduction occurred near Kunak, 129 km (80 miles) south of Sandakan, Sabah.
Following Saturday’s kidnapping, Tan said militants were holding 24 people captive – five Malaysians, a Dutch national, a German, a South Korean, four Indonesians, six Vietnamese and six Filipinos.
ASG, which has pledged allegiance to the extremist group Islamic State (IS), has collected millions of dollars through kidnappings in recent years, according to online reports. This year alone, ASG has collected at least 354.1 million Philippines pesos (U.S. $7.3 million) from ransom paid for hostages, Philippine-based news website Rappler.com reported.
Philippine leader transferred
In the Philippines, government officials were denying claims that the removal of Brig. Gen. Arnel de la Vega as commander of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Joint Task Force Sulu was tied to the series of kidnappings linked to ASG, the Manila Times reported.
“It has nothing to do with the reported continuous kidnappings. This is based on the promotion system,” Col. Edgard Arevalo, AFP public affairs office chief, told the Times. The Board of Generals recommended de la Vega serve as commandant of the AFP Command and General Staff College, replacing Maj. Gen. Rodolfo Santiago who reached mandatory retirement age.