PERTH/SEMPORNA - Malaysia is not ruling out the possibility that the latest abductions at a resort off Semporna, Sabah, are a deliberate act to sour the country's relations with China.
The Star newspaper quoted Prime Minister Najib Razak as saying on Thursday that the fact that one of those kidnapped was a Chinese national could further strain the already tense situation, following the Malaysia Airlines MH370 crisis.
"This must be avoided. There may be those who are attempting to drive a wedge between us and China. They may be trying to take advantage of the situation," Mr Najib said after a bilateral meeting with his Australian counterpart Tony Abbott in Perth.
Mr Najib said he believed ties with China would remain strong despite the latest incident. according to the newspaper.
A 29-year-old tourist from China, identified as Gao Hua Yun from Shanghai, was abducted from the Singamata Reef Resort off Semporna, along with Filipino worker Marcy Dayawan @ Mimi, 40, late on Wednesday, said the report.
The Malaysian government had sought the cooperation of Filipino authorities.
"I'm not dismissing any possibilities but the priority now is to obtain the release of the victims," Mr Najib said.
China has urged Malaysian police to rescue its citizen and ensure safety, AFP reported.
"We sent relevant staff to the site and ask the local police to make an all-out rescue effort while ensuring the security of Chinese citizens and taking effective measures to safeguard the security of Chinese tourists," foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters.
AFP said China's consulate on Borneo island on Thursday advised its nationals to "pay attention to personal safety" when travelling to eastern Sabah state's world-renowned
dive sites, which include the island of Sipadan, and avoid "remote islands".
A news portal reported that the rebel group Abu Sayyaf was believed to be responsible for the abduction.
Filipino military sources told Rappler.com that the two women were taken by six former Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) members who had joined Abu Sayyaf.
Malaysian security forces have launched a massive hunt along the sea borders with southern Philippines for the gunmen. Security officials confirmed that they're checking all possible escape routes of the gunmen.
Sources told The Star that security forces on both sides of the border have not received word of any sightings of the group.
It is believed that the gunmen managed to slip away under the cover of darkness to the island chain of Tawi Tawi in southern Philippines.
Malaysiakini news portal on Thursday quoted Malaysian Chinese Association president Liow Tiong Lai as saying the kidnap, which occurred as Malaysia continues to search for MH370, will further tarnish the country's image.
"This incident happened at this point of time, (so) it will make things worse for the issue of MH370," he said at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday.
China ambassador to Malaysia, Dr Huang Huikang, who was at the same press conference, called for Malaysia to intensify security measures to ensure tourist safety.
Wednesday's kidnapping came a day after the first-year anniversary of the setting up of the Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) following the intrusion of Kg Tanduo in Lahad Datu in February last year.
A similar styled kidnapping to Wednesday's incident occurred on Nov 15 last year at Pom Pom Island Resort in Semporna in which Taiwanese businessman Li Min Shu, 58, was killed and his wife Chang An Wei, 57, abducted by gunmen.
Madam Chang was subsequently released 36 days later for an unknown ransom paid via negotiations with the gunmen who held her in the Abu Sayaff stronghold of Jolo in the southern Philippines.