Unidentified gunmen snatched 10 fishermen believed to be Filipinos in waters off eastern Malaysia’s Sabah state on Tuesday, security officials said of the latest abductions in a region where Islamic State-linked militants have carried out deadly kidnappings.
No group had claimed responsibility and officials said it was not immediately clear if Abu Sayyaf, a militant group based in the nearby southern Philippines, was involved.
“Yes, we were informed that they spoke in the Malay language, but we could not ascertain if they were local bandits or have connections with the Abu Sayyaf,” Sabah police chief Omar Mammah told BenarNews.
The fishermen, whose ages ranged from 17 to 60, were believed to be from a clan of sea gypsies living in the southern Philippines, Omar said.
The victims were taken from a pair of fishing boats carrying 16 fishermen off Sabah’s Lahad Datu district, after they were approached by gunmen on two other boats, Philippine and Malaysian security officials told BenarNews.
The gunmen, who were armed with M-16 assault rifles, boarded the fishing vessels, confiscated the fishermen’s documents and left with the 10 victims, authorities said.
The abductors sailed toward Sitangkai island in the southern Philippines, which is a 15-minute boat ride from Lahad Datu’s Tambisan waters, a Sabah police source told BenarNews.
Officials said they were still trying to determine why the gunmen did not take the six other fishermen, who reported the kidnappings after being rescued by the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency.
Earlier on Tuesday, Mazlan Mansor, Malaysia’s deputy police inspector-general, said that the 10 had no identification documents and their boats had sailed without a permit during a curfew.
“They had no identification. We believe they are not Malaysians,” Mazlan told reporters in Selangor state. “So far, we have not been contacted by any party or by any group to claim responsibility.”
The abductions took place a week after Malaysian police chief Abdul Hamid Bador warned in an interview with the Bernama state news agency that Abu Sayyaf still posed a security threat. The United States has listed the group as a foreign terrorist organization.
The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) is the smallest of several armed groups that operate in the restive Philippine south, but considered the most brutal one. It is notorious for abducting foreigners, including citizens of neighboring Southeast Asian nations.
Three years ago, the Abu Sayyaf beheaded two Canadian hostages and a German captive after their governments refused to pay ransoms for their release.
One of Abu Sayyaf’s leaders, Isnilon Hapilon, was later named the head of the Islamic State branch in the Philippine south. He was killed in October 2017 after he led militants in a five-month battle with government forces during the siege of the southern Philippine city of Marawi.
Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines began trilateral maritime patrols in June 2017 in response to a spate of kidnappings targeting fishing trawlers and tugboats in Sulu and Sulawesi seas by the Abu Sayyaf.
Last month, Abu Sayyaf killed Dutch hostage Ewold Horn, a 59-year-old wildlife photographer, during a firefight in the southern Philippines that also left at least six militants and eight soldiers dead, the Philippine military said.
Tuesday’s abductions occurred barely days after the Sabah government announced that its security forces would be highly prepared along its water border to foil intrusions and cross-border crime.
“We will give confidence to [tourists],” Chief Minister Mohd Shafie Apdal, who is also Sabah Security Committee chairman, told reporters. “We do not want an impression from outsiders that Sabah is not a safe place.”