Indonesia Confirms Seven Sailors Kidnapped in Philippine Waters

Lintang Sulastri and Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata
160624-ID-sailor-follow-620.jpg Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi (left) speaks to reporters following a meeting in Jakarta to discuss the latest kidnapping of Indonesian sailors, June 24, 2016.
Lintang Sulastri/BenarNews

Ministers from Indonesia’s government confirmed Friday that seven Indonesian sailors were abducted at sea off the southern Philippines four days earlier, acknowledging they were slow to verify and announce the latest in a string of kidnappings in the militant-infested region.

Top Indonesian officials, including the foreign minister, the security minister, and the heads of national police and intelligence agency, met in Jakarta on Friday to discuss the latest hostage crisis involving Indonesian sailors.

But officials still had no information about whether the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), which is based on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao (see map below), had abducted the seven sailors on Monday in the waters off Tawi-Tawi.

Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, the coordinating minister for Poltical, Legal and Security Affairs, who chaired Friday’s meeting – only the first one held to date to discuss the hostage crisis  – told reporters that the government was still trying to secure information about who carried out the kidnapping –  whether it was Abu Sayyaf or a splinter group.

The motive of the unidentified hijackers who took the sailors was unknown, he added.

On Thursday, however, an anonymous government official familiar with the case confirmed to the Jakarta Post that the seven were taken by “the same network that hijacked the Brahma 12 tugboat in March.” The official was referring to the kidnapping by Abu Sayyaf militants of 10 Indonesian sailors, who were eventually released in May.

Abu Sayyaf, which has aligned itself with the extremist group Islamic State (IS), in the past two months beheaded two Canadian hostages after its ransom demands were not met. But on Friday, ASG freed a Filipina, Marites Flor, who had been held with the Canadians, news agencies reported from the Philippines.

According to some reports in the Indonesian media, the kidnappers of the seven sailors were demanding a ransom of 20 million ringgit, the equivalent of U.S. $4.9 million or Rp. 65 billion. Authorities have not yet confirmed the ransom demands.

“This third incident is truly intolerable,” Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told reporters as she emerged from the emergency meeting, referring to Abu Sayyaf’s earlier snatching of a total of 14 Indonesians in March and April. All 14 of those sailors were freed in May unharmed.

Crisis center activated

The current location of the missing sailors was unknown, she said, adding that the government had mobilized its crisis response center to deal with the latest abduction.

“The Crisis Center already exists to work for the release of hostages, and that is ‘on’ again. We are intensifying our communications with parties in the Philippines and Indonesia to identify the next steps,” Retno said.

In addition, Indonesia would also maintain a moratorium on coal shipments to the Philippines by sea, until that country guaranteed the safety of its waters, Retno said.

The sailors were sailing back to East Kalimantan province from the Philippines after delivering a cargo of coal, when their barge and two tugboats were hijacked off Tawi-Tawi, according to reports.

Retno added that many of those ships carry coal, a trade that meets more than 90 percent of the Philippines’ coal needs. The coal supply comes from Kalimantan. Despite the moratorium, ships apparently are still making the sea journey.

‘My husband called me’

Luhut acknowledged that the government was late in verifying the the hostage-taking even after relatives of the victims in Samarinda, the capital of East Kalimantan, learned about the abduction on Wednesday.

Starting Wednesday, the government had attempted to confirm the report with relevant authorities, and had failed to obtain confirmation, Luhut said.

“Philippine intelligence authorities were still hesitant about it until yesterday afternoon,” he said.

In the confusion, some top officials gave out wrong information, Luhut noted. The head of the Indonesian military, Gatot Nurmantyo, was even quoted as saying that the report about the abduction was a hoax.

The first person to hear of the kidnapping was Dian Megawati Ahmad, whose husband Ismail called her to say he had been kidnapped.

“My husband called me using the hijackers’ cell phone number. He only told me to tell the company and the media that they are being held hostage by Abu Sayyaf,” Dian told BenarNews on Thursday.

Her husband, Ismail, told her that the hijackers had released six crewmembers, ordering them to sail the tugboats and barge back home, but that  he and six other sailors were taken by the gunmen.

“For sure, my husband is on dry land but I have no idea whether he is in a house, forest or hut, I don’t know. I had no chance to ask where he is because the line was bad,” Dian said.

Joint patrols not yet launched

Meanwhile, plans by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines to mount joint patrols in waters along their shared borders to prevent more maritime hijackings have not yet materialized, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir said Friday.

The plan was one of four agreements that came out of a trilateral meeting in Yogyakarta on May 5, which was attended by the military chiefs and foreign ministers of the three countries.

“The three countries are in the process of discussing standard operating procedures, following that meeting in Yogyakarta. We continue to push for this to be finished soon,” Arrmanatha told reporters.

The Yogyakarta meeting followed the kidnappings of the 14 Indonesians sailors as well as four Malaysians in three hijackings by Abu Sayyaf. All 18 were released last Month.

Luhut said the government was studying what security measures could be put in place to prevent a repeat of the kidnappings.

“We are still thinking about what this should look like. Does the military escort ships, or do we put military personnel aboard ships – it had not been decided. But it is urgent to avoid further hostage takings,” he said.

National Police Chief Badrodin Haiti  said ships should have security escorts.

“We can also involve the Philippine military to provide the escorts along certain dangerous routes.  But this idea needs to be discussed more with the Philippines,” Badrodin said.

Gunawan in Balikpapan, Indonesia, contributed to this report.


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