KOTA KINABALU (The Star, Asia News Network/REUTERS) - Malaysia said on Sunday (July 10) its security forces in Sabah have launched a hunt for gunmen who allegedly snatched three Indonesians in the eastern state's waters a day earlier.
Sabah Police Commissioner Datuk Abdul Rashid Harun said the authorities had also informed their counterparts in the Philippines about the incident that occurred just before midnight on Saturday.
Five armed men, some in military fatigues, slipped into the high-security waters of Tungku in Sabah’s east coast Lahad Datu district to grab the three fishermen from a Malaysian-registered fishing trawler.
It could not be ascertained which group is behind the latest incident, though suspicion is falling on an Abu Sayyaf sub-commander known as Apo Mike, who has been responsible for several recent kidnappings involving sailors on tugboats plying the international waters between Sabah and Philippines.
Rashid said according to initial reports, five armed men were on a speedboat that pulled up near the trawler.
Three of the suspects armed with M14, M16 rifles and a grenade launcher boarded the trawler and ordered the crew of four Indonesians and three “pelau (sea gypsies)” to gather at the bow, he said.
The gunmen asked for their passports and took the three Indonesians while the pelau, who did not have any documents, were released, he said, adding that no shots were fired.
The kidnappers, who spoke in poor and broken Malay, also seized the special permit allowing the crew to be in the curfew zone during curfew hours, six handphones and the trawler registration card before fleeing.
The abducted Indonesian Timorese men have been identified as Lorence Koten, 34, Teo Dorus Kopong, 42, and Emanuel, 46.
Police said that based on the description given by the freed men, the kidnappers are in their 30s and 40s.
No ransom demand has been received, Rashid said.
The latest kidnapping comes just as the Philippines military launched a massive crackdown against the Abu Sayyaf in Jolo and Basilan where over thousands of troops have been deployed.
The Abu Sayyaf is a loose network of a few hundred Islamist militants, formed in the 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network, that has earned millions of dollars from kidnappings-for-ransom.
Although its leaders have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, analysts say they are mainly focused on lucrative kidnappings.
The group has beheaded two Canadian nationals recently after its ransom deadlines expired. It is still holding men from Japan, the Netherlands and Norway.
Seven Indonesian sailors were also kidnapped at gunpoint in June.
Also this year the group kidnapped 14 Indonesian sailors, holding them in their stronghold in the southern Philippines. They were later freed but there was no information on whether a ransom was paid.
Rashid said the Indonesians kidnapped on Saturday are likely to be in the southern Philippines now but did not elaborate.
In Jakarta, the Indonesian foreign ministry said it had no information yet on the abductions.