Suspected Filipino gunmen have abducted four Malaysians from a ship off eastern Sabah, near the southern Philippines, Malaysian authorities said Saturday, but officials could not confirm whether Abu Sayyaf Group militants were responsible.
The Friday night hijacking of a Malaysian registered timber-hauling barge, the M.V. MASFIVE 6, occurred after last week’s abduction of 10 Indonesian sailors by Abu Sayyaf in the southernmost region of the Philippines, where the al-Qaeda linked group operates and which borders Malaysia’s Sabah state.
The four Malaysians crewmembers were abducted by eight gunmen in waters off Pulau Ligitan, near Semporna on Sabah’s east coast, according to reports.
The gunmen, who boarded the vessel which was travelling from Manila after delivering cargo, then fled with the four hostages on a speedboat toward Philippine waters, reports said. There were five other crewmembers on the barge – three sailors from Myanmar and two from Indonesia – but the gunmen left them behind.
Malaysia’s foreign ministry issued a statement Saturday condemning the kidnapping as “senseless and barbaric,” and Malaysian Police Inspector-General Khalid Abu Bakar told the state-run Bernama news agency that the authorities were trying to determine whether Abu Sayyaf abducted the four sailors.
The Philippine Muslim militant group has taken foreigners hostage in the past, killing some of their captives. Last year, a 39-year-old Malaysian citizen, Bernard Then, was executed by Abu Sayyaf after being abducted from a seaside restaurant in Sabah in May.
Khalid said that the kidnappers, in the latest case, had not yet contacted authorities with any demands.
No confirmation yet from Philippines
In the southern Philippines, an army spokesman told Agence France-Presse that the military was still verifying the report of Friday’s abductions after being notified by Malaysian officials.
"Whether or not they were seized by the Abu Sayyaf or brought to the Philippines, we have yet to confirm," regional army spokesman Felimon Tan said.
Meanwhile, a report in the Philippine Inquirer quoted an anonymous military source as saying that the gunmen who kidnapped the four Malaysians were with Abu Sayyaf.
The gunmen, who spoke broken English and Filipino, declared themselves as ASG members as they boarded the barge, the source said.
The statement from the Malaysian foreign ministry said that officials, including at Malaysia’s embassy in Manila and consulate in Davao City, in the southern Philippines, would work closely with Philippines authorities in the investigation and efforts to secure the four sailors’ release.
The four Malaysians range in age from 21 to 34 and are from the town of Sibu in Sarawak state, the ministry said. The four crew members were identified as Wong Teck Kang, Wong Hung Sing, Wong Teck Chi and Johnny Lau Jung Hien.
In Sabah, state police Commissioner Abdul Rashid Harun Sabah said authorities were trying to pinpoint whether the abduction occurred in Malaysian or international waters, according to AFP.
Sabah police also were trying to figure out a motive as well as why the four Malaysian – and not all nine crew members – were taken by the gunmen, local media quoted the commissioner as saying.
In the cases of Friday’s incident aboard the Malaysian vessel and the earlier kidnapping of the 10 Indonesian sailors from a tugboat sailing from Kalimantan, Indonesia to Batangas, in the southern Philippines, the attackers targeted slow-moving ships in the Sulu Sea that were relatively easy to board, the Associated Press quoted Malaysian officials as saying.
On Tuesday, Indonesia’s foreign ministry announced that the 10 sailors had been taken by Abu Sayyaf.
That kidnapping at sea is believed to have occurred on April 26. According to the Philippine military, initial information pointed to the 10 Indonesians being taken by a faction of Abu Sayyaf to Sulu, an island in the southern Philippines where the militant group operates, AFP reported.