Updated at 9:55 p.m. ET on 2018-05-08
Malaysian security forces shot dead four suspected members of a Filipino kidnap-for-ransom group during a gun battle Tuesday off the Borneo Island state of Sabah, officials said.
The clash occurred after members of the Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) and marine police intercepted a boat before dawn at about 9.6 nautical miles off the coast of Lahad Datu, a town on the eastern edge of the state.
“The suspects, in their 20s to 40s, then fired at the team, which forced the authorities to return fire in self-defense,” Sabah Police Chief Ramli Din told a news conference.
Ramli said two suspects were found dead in the boat and the bodies of two others were found floating nearby. Security forces were unharmed but a rifle round struck the left side of their boat’s bow, Ramli said.
Ramli told BenarNews police are investigating to determine if the suspects had any links with militant groups, such as the Abu Sayyaf, in the southern Philippines.
“We are looking into whether they were pro-Islamic State (IS),” Ramli said.
The suspects did not carry identification cards and were believed to have used firearms that could have fallen into the water during the clash, he said.
Authorities seized the boat, a 45-caliber Remington pistol, a 40 mm grenade and about three dozen rounds of ammunition for rifles, he said.
The Abu Sayyaf, or Bearers of the Sword, has been engaged in banditry, kidnapping and bombings in and around Jolo and Basilan islands in the southwestern part of the Philippines since its inception in the early 1990s.
In May 2017, a pro-IS faction of Abu Sayyaf led by Isnilon Hapilon, led a siege of the southern Philippine city of Marawi. More than 1,200 people, mostly militants, were killed in a battle that ended in October.