KUALA LUMPUR • Gunmen have kidnapped four Malaysians from a vessel off Sabah in waters where Abu Sayyaf militants are known to operate.
If the Philippine Islamist group is confirmed to be behind the kidnapping, it would be their second such hostage-taking in as many weeks.
Philippine regional army spokesman Felimon Tan said the military was verifying the reported kidnapping after Malaysian authorities informed them of the incident on Friday. "Whether or not they were seized by the Abu Sayyaf or brought to the Philippines, we have yet to confirm," he was quoted as saying by Agence France-Presse.
Sabah police commissioner Abdul Rashid Harun told Malaysia's official news agency Bernama that the authorities were still investigating if the kidnapping occurred in Malaysian or international waters.
"The area is vast and we have our assets there. So we are investigating whether it happened in or off our waters," he said. "The five other individuals in the ship comprising Myanmar and Indonesian nationals were released."
The Malaysian foreign ministry said the attack reportedly took place in the waters off Ligitan island. The ministry said the barge was on its way home from the Philippines when it was attacked by eight gunmen in a speedboat.
Many Western and other embassies routinely issue warnings against travelling to most of the Philippines' southern regions because of the risk of being abducted by the Abu Sayyaf. On Tuesday, officials said 10 Indonesian sailors had been kidnapped in waters off the southern Philippines. The incident was believed to have happened the previous Saturday.
The Philippine military said initial information indicated the sailors may have been taken by an Abu Sayyaf faction to Sulu, a remote southern island that is a hideout of the militant outfit.
Someone claiming to be from Abu Sayyaf called the vessel's owners to demand a ransom for the sailors' release.
Other recent kidnappings, including of two Canadian tourists and a Norwegian resort owner in areas previously considered beyond the group's reach, have further raised fears. Last year, Malaysian Bernard Then was kidnapped from a seaside restaurant in Sabah, about 300km from the Abu Sayyaf's Jolo stronghold. He was later killed.
The Abu Sayyaf has staged cross-border raids into Malaysia before, including in April 2000 when gunmen seized 21 European and Asian tourists from a dive resort. They were released after a ransom was paid the following year.
Founded in the 1990s with the help of Al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden, the Abu Sayyaf has been blamed for some of the Philippines' worst terror attacks.