Two Indonesian fishermen were abducted early Tuesday off the east coast of the Malaysian Borneo state of Sabah by men believed to be part of a southern Philippine group seeking ransom, a police official said.
The kidnapping was the first one reported in the Sulu and Celebes seas since March 2017, according to a Singapore-based agency that combats piracy on the high seas. The fishermen were taken around 12:30 a.m. near Gaya island off Malaysia’s Semporna district, according to Sabah acting Police Commissioner Omar Mammah.
“The two fishermen were kidnapped by two suspects carrying M16 rifles, who had boarded their fishing boat and took them to an unknown location,” he said during a press conference in Kota Kinabalu. Two crewmates hid and were not captured.
“We believe the kidnapping case is related to a kidnap-for-ransom group, however, we still haven’t received any ransom demand. We also are not yet discounting the case as a terror-related one.”
The victims were identified as boat skipper Samsul Saguni, 40, and his assistant, Usman Yunus, 35, Omar said.
A crewmate who identified himself as Bakri said he believed the kidnappers were from the southern Philippines because they spoke Suluk, a Philippine dialect.
“I don’t understand what they were saying but they were speaking Suluk, a language I always hear spoken. Earlier, I had heard the sound of a boat approaching our boat,” he told BenarNews.
“I noticed something was amiss when I went up to the boat’s deck and found the light had been turned off. In the darkness, I saw the shadows of two men carrying rifles, which prompted me to head back down to the lower deck where I hid.”
Bakri said he hid for an hour.
“I kept praying to Allah to keep me safe as I laid motionless and quiet under some wood planks and gunny sacks. An hour later, another crewman who had gone into hiding called out my name and said the kidnappers had left with our skipper and his number-two man,” Bakri said.
Omar said officials had contacted counterparts in the Philippines and were waiting for updates from them.
While officials have not identified any group as being responsible, Abu Sayyaf, a southern Philippines-based militant group, is notorious for kidnappings, bombings and beheadings over the past two decades.
“Based on the crew members’ account, we believe the men were carrying M16 rifles and riding in a pump boat. We are not sure how many people were in their boat apart from the two who boarded,” he said.
History of piracy
Omar said the kidnapping was the first in Sabah this year and the fishing boat had a license to operate during curfew hours in the Eastern Sabah Security Zone.
Sabah Chief Minister Shafie Apdal said authorities would focus on rescuing the kidnap victims.
“I’ve requested that action be taken although the kidnap victims are Indonesian,” he said during a Maal Hijrah or Islamic New Year celebration in Sabah’s capital city.
“We will intensify our patrol and intelligence gathering so that we can find these perpetrators and the kidnap victims,” he said. “We will ensure the victims are found safe because they were taken from our waters and it is our responsibility to our neighbor Indonesia.”
The kidnapping was the first in the Sulu and Celebes seas in nearly 18 months, according to Nicholas Teo, deputy director at the Singapore-based information sharing center of the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP)..
“The last one was Mar 23, 2017, near Basilan, southern Philippines,” Teo told BenarNews in a WhatsApp message.
Sabah’s east coast is separated from southern Philippines by the Sulu and Celebes seas. In June 2017, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia launched joint trilateral patrols aimed at safeguarding their common sea waters from pirates and militants.
A total of 40 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships – 29 actual incidents and 11 attempts – were reported in Asia from January to June, according to ReCAAP. By comparison, there were 40 actual incidents and seven attempts during the same period in 2017