Malaysia, Philippines to form joint task force

Malaysian engineer Bernard Then was kidnapped from a seafood restaurant in Sandakan, Sarawak, on May 14.
Malaysian engineer Bernard Then was kidnapped from a seafood restaurant in Sandakan, Sarawak, on May 14.PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

Malaysia and the Philippines will establish a joint task force to track down those responsible for the murder of Malaysian engineer Bernard Then, who was killed by Abu Sayyaf militants on Tuesday.

Malaysia's Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar will visit Manila and coordinate efforts with his counterpart to bring the culprits to justice.

The meeting, Tan Sri Khalid said, will also touch on eliminating future terror threats from the Abu Sayyaf, which is behind a number of kidnap-for-ransom cases in Sabah. Nearly 50 people have been seized from places such as Sipadan, Pom Pom Island and Baik Island in the past 15 years.

Mr Khalid, who confirmed the comments to The Straits Times, added that the Malaysian police are still working to confirm the identity of a head found by the Philippine authorities on Tuesday night.

If the victim is confirmed to be Mr Then, he will be the first known Malaysian kidnap victim to be killed by the Abu Sayyaf militants.

A day after saying it had recovered a headless body believed to belong to Mr Then, the Philippine military retracted its report yesterday.

"No headless cadaver was recovered," navy Captain Roy Vincent Trinidad, chief of staff of the Joint Task Force Zambasulta, said in a statement, the Philippine Star newspaper reported.

Mr Then, 39, and restaurant owner Thien Nyuk Fun, 50, were kidnapped from a seafood restaurant in Sandakan, Sabah, on May 14. The latter was released on Nov 8, allegedly after a ransom of 30 million pesos (S$905,000) was paid.

A Philippines-based anti-kidnapping activist, Professor Octavio Dinampo, who has knowledge of the negotiations, told The Star that negotiators had managed to get the militants to agree to a sum of 30 million pesos earlier, leading to the release of Ms Thien. However, he said negotiations hit a stalemate when an uncle of Abu Sayyaf leader Indang Susukan, who was holding the two victims hostage, suddenly demanded up to 80 million pesos.

"I believe that when it became clear to the Abu Sayyaf that no additional money was coming, they killed Then," Prof Octavio said.

Brigadier-General Alan Arrojado, commander of Joint Task Group Sulu, told The Star, however, that he believed an artillery attack launched by the Philippine military on the kidnappers may have led to the beheading of Mr Then.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 20, 2015, with the headline 'Malaysia, Philippines to form joint task force'. Print Edition | Subscribe