Malaysian police said security forces gunned down two suspected members of the southern Philippine-based militant group Abu Sayyaf during a shootout at sea off Sabah state, police said Wednesday, days after Indonesia had warned about movements by armed groups in area waters.
Sabah state Police Commissioner Omar Mammah said members of a law-enforcement team, including the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM), were on patrol Tuesday night when they spotted two boats about 10 nautical miles (18.5 km) off Lahad Datu district.
“The team tried to intercept the two boats when the perpetrators fired shots at them,” Omar told BenarNews. He said the officers did not get hit, but returned fire.
Gunmen on one of the boats managed to flee as they entered Philippine territorial waters, he said, adding that the suspects left behind one of the boats, where the law-enforcement team found the body of a man with gunshot wounds.
“As soon as the shooting stopped, we inspected a boat where we found one dead body in it, while another body was found floating nearby,” Omar said. “We believe that the suspects were from the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).”
Abu Sayyaf is a ragtag band of militants based in and around Jolo and Basilan islands in the southwestern part of the Philippines. Authorities could not determine the nationalities of the slain men as they did not carry identification documents, Omar said.
Other police officials later told reporters that the duo were between 30 and 40 years old. Security forces seized a vintage Garand rifle with a magazine and two live bullets, authorities said.
Sabah has been under a dusk-to-dawn sea curfew during the past few months as authorities took steps to curtail movements of armed groups involved in kidnap-for-ransom activities.
The alleged shootout took place just days after the state-run news agency Bernama reported that the Consulate General of the Republic of Indonesia had issued a “letter of notification” to local authorities, warning about the movement of armed groups between the southern Philippines and the east coast of Sabah, one of two Malaysian states on Borneo Island.
Bernama quoted Krishna Djelani, the Indonesian consul-general based in Kota Kinabalu, as saying that the warning was important to ensure that Indonesians, especially those working as fishermen and crew members of ships, took safety precautions.
During the past 19 years, more than 20 kidnapping incidents involving Indonesian victims had taken place, resulting in the deaths of almost 40 people, Krishna told Bernama. She did not elaborate.
“We were initially informed that there was a movement of armed groups from southern Philippines that had to do with kidnapping for ransom,” she said, adding that the notification was aimed at warning about 300,000 Indonesians living in Sabah.
“Any information that we receive, we have to warn the Indonesians there as a precaution lest they become victims (of abduction),” she said.
The killing of the suspects occurred days after Malaysia’s national police chief, Abdul Hamid Bador, told BenarNews in a wide-ranging interview that the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA), along with maritime police, had “strengthened their presence in Sabah waters” in an effort to track down kidnap-for-ransom gangs operating along the state’s eastern coast.
“[W]e are focusing on mobility and the ability to block escape routes, to engage with the kidnappers while they are on the run,” Abdul Hamid said. “We have dozens of [coastal] check points. ... At each checkpoint there could be up to 30 security personnel.”