MANILA • Gunmen holding three foreigners and one Filipino hostage have slipped past a naval cordon and escaped to remote mountains in the southern Philippines without making ransom demands, the police said yesterday.
Elite army troops were trying to track the bandits while air force helicopters were readied for a possible rescue as the abductors trekked into Davao Oriental province, a hotbed of Maoist and Islamic rebels, said Senior Superintendent Aaron Aquino, the region's deputy police commander.
The gunmen seized two Canadian tourists, a Norwegian employee and a Filipina from a luxury island resort on Monday night, adding to a string of kidnappings of foreigners in the conflict-wracked south since the 1990s.
The victims were aboard yachts anchored at the resort's marina.
"Rest assured, our security sector will not stop until they catch this group," President Benigno Aquino told reporters. His assurance echoes comments by the nation's leaders whenever a foreigner is kidnapped, but the captives' releases have generally been secured only with ransom payments.
"Last night, we received information that the kidnappers and their victims have been sighted... they are in the Davao Oriental area," Supt Aquino told DZBB radio."Our scout rangers are following their tracks... The air force is also helping, ready for insertion."
Police and the navy had tried to set up a boat blockade on Tuesday around Samal island, where the four were abducted, to stop the gunmen from escaping on their outriggers. But Supt Aquino's comments confirmed they had slipped past and sailed about 50km east to Davao Oriental, a poor farming and fishing region on the far south-eastern edge of Mindanao island.
Canadian tourists John Ridsdel, 68, and Robert Hall, 50, were among those abducted, police said. The other foreigner is Norwegian resort employee Kjartan Sekkinstad, 56, and the local woman is Mr Hall's 40-year-old girlfriend, identified only as Tess.
It was not clear which group was behind the abductions. "We are waiting for contact from the kidnappers, so we will know their demands," Supt Aquino said.
He added that investigators were looking at the possible involvement of communist guerillas or Islamic rebels excluded from a peace treaty signed last year with the government.
Communist and Islamic rebels have been waging decades-long struggles that have claimed tens of thousands of lives. The impoverished regions of Mindanao have proved to be fertile recruiting grounds and sanctuary for both groups. However, Supt Aquino said he doubted the involvement of the Abu Sayyaf, an Islamic militant group known for carrying out dozens of kidnappings-for-ransom since the early 1990s.
The outriggers used to storm the marina on Samal island on Monday night were not a "signature" of the Al-Qaeda-linked group as they typically use high-speed boats, he said.
Nevertheless, armed bandits have in the past kidnapped foreigners in Mindanao and sold them to Abu Sayyaf.