Philippine military officials on Wednesday confirmed that the latest abduction of five Indonesian fishermen in waters near Lahad Datu in Sabah, Malaysia, was carried out by Abu Sayyaf militants.
The hostages were believed to have been taken to the Sulu archipelago in the southern Philippines after the military tracked their speedboat and destroyed it in an air raid last week, regional military chief Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said.
Two of five Abu Sayyaf gunmen guarding the hostages were killed in clashes over the weekend, according to authorities. “They were working for the Abu Sayyaf,” Sobejana said.
Sobejana identified the slain men as Kah Bong and Melbi, the navigator and negotiator of the group, respectively. The pair were among a group of known Abu Sayyaf associates and members who snatched the Indonesians on Thursday.
The gunmen and their captives, who worked for a Malaysian fishing company, are believed to be somewhere on the island of Sulare off the coastal town of Parang in Sulu, a remote, jungle-clad area the Abu Sayyaf militants have controlled for years.
Sobejana said that because reports of the kidnapping were not relayed until Friday, “this Abu Sayyaf group was already able to enter the area.”
The Philippine Navy with the help of local authorities managed to pinpoint the area where the Abu Sayyaf gunmen took the hostages, he said, adding that Sulare Island was under tight military blockade.
“As we speak, we are cordoning the Sulare Island,” Sobejana said.
During the weekend airstrike, the gunmen aboard the small speedboat managed to escape by jumping overboard. One of the militants, identified as Kah Bong and said to be an expert Abu Sayyaf navigator, was killed.
Four other militants were killed during a clash on Sunday.
He said the military had not determined if the Indonesian hostages had been handed over to other Abu Sayyaf units, a common practice used to confuse troops.
The Abu Sayyaf Group is the smallest of several armed groups operating in the southern Philippines, but it is considered the most brutal one. Three years ago, Abu Sayyaf militants beheaded two Canadian hostages and a German captive after their governments refused to pay ransoms for their release.
Abu Sayyaf figures allied with the so-called Islamic State group and foreign militants led a takeover of the southern city of Marawi in 2017. They were defeated five months later after a battle with Philippine forces that killed an estimated 1,200 militants, soldiers and civilians.
In January 2019, an Abu Sayyaf unit helped two Indonesian suicide bombers attack a church on Jolo island, leaving 23 dead.
Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales in Cotabato, Philippines, contributed to this report.