Relatives of two Indonesian fishermen abducted off the east coast of Malaysian Borneo earlier this month have received a ransom demand of nearly U.S. $1 million from a Malay speaker calling from the Philippines, a Malaysian security official said Tuesday.
The caller demanded the ransom of 4 million ringgit (U.S. $967,220) be paid in Malaysian currency but did not specify a deadline, Sabah Police Commissioner Omar Mammah said.
The call was placed to the wife of one of the victims in Sulawesi, Indonesia, he said.
“The caller making the ransom demand to wife of the boat skipper’s assistant spoke in Malay at 10:24 a.m. on Sept.18,” Omar told BenarNews. “[T]here’s a big possibility the caller had spent time in Sabah. We’re not discounting this possibility.”
The fishermen were kidnapped Sept. 11 from their fishing boat anchored near Bodgaya island, off the east coast of Sabah state, according to officials. Two others crew members hid when the boat was boarded by two men in face masks who had arrived in a pump boat.
“We believe the call was made from the Philippines as the number used was that of the neighboring nation,” Omar told reporters on Tuesday. “We also believe there will be negotiations between the kidnappers and the families concerning the ransom.”
‘Abducted from their waters’
The Indonesian Foreign Ministry official responsible for the welfare of Indonesian nationals abroad was not immediately available to confirm the ransom call.
“Hopefully the Sabah police are not only forwarding the information about the ransom demand from the hostage-takers, but they also can free the two Indonesian fishermen who were abducted from their waters,” the official, Lalu Muhammad Iqbal, earlier told reporters in a text message.
Omar said authorities were intensifying security efforts after receiving reports from fishermen about pump boats apparently scouting Sabah waters for kidnapping opportunities.
Four days after the kidnapping, three Indonesian fishermen who had been held captive by Abu Sayyaf for 18 months were released. Abu Sayyaf is a southern Philippines-based militant group notorious for kidnappings, bombings and beheadings over the past two decades.
A regional security analyst said the Indonesian government had been quiet about their release.
“We don’t know exactly happened as the Indonesian government is not saying anything about it,” Lai Yew Ming of Universiti Malaysia Sabah told BenarNews.
“Some governments stress they have a zero-tolerance policy against kidnappers, meaning there are no negotiations whatsoever. But what happens behind the scene could be a different story.”
At a Sept. 19 ceremony at the Foreign Ministry in Jakarta in which the former hostages were reunited with their families, Indonesian Deputy Foreign Minister AM Fachir said the men were freed “by utilizing the assets we have in the field and the support of the Philippine government.”
Two suspects killed
On Sept. 20, forces from the Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) killed two men suspected of acting as informants for kidnappers, during a sea chase off Bohayan island, also in Semporna district of Sabah, where the Sept. 11 kidnapping took place.
The men, who did not carry identification but appeared to be in their 50s, fired at authorities as they attempted to flee in a pump boat, according to police, who went looking for them after receiving a tip-off from local people.
Esscom suspects locals harbored the informants, Commander Hazani Ghazali said. He also said the kidnappers could be members of Abu Sayyaf.
“The surge in kidnappings in 2016 in Sabah happened because the Abu Sayyaf wanted to finance their operations during the Marawi war in 2017,” he said, referring to the five-month siege of the southern Philippine city by Islamic State-linked militants that left 1,200 people dead.
In June 2017, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia launched trilateral patrols aimed at safeguarding the Sulu and Celebes seas that lie between their countries from pirates and militants.
The Sept. 11 kidnapping was the first in region in nearly 18 months, according to the Singapore-based information sharing center of the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP).
Tia Asmara in Jakarta contributed to this report.