PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - An SOS message has been sent out by a Malaysian hostage held by Abu Sayyaf rebels, pleading for help as he has been starved and beaten up.
"We can't bear it anymore. We are in pain. All of us are sick. We have cuts on our bodies. We are weak. No food to eat. What's more, we are beaten. There are people who want to shoot us. Please help us."
Those were the words of Mr Mohd Ridzuan Ismail, one of the five Malaysians abducted by Abu Sayyaf gunmen from Lahad Datu waters in the east coast of Sabah on July 18.
On Wednesday (Sept 21), Abu Sayyaf spokesman Abu Rami called The Star from Jolo island, southern Philippines, and passed the phone to Mr Mohd Ridzuan, 32, for him to send a message to the Malaysian government.
"I'm a hostage from Malaysia. My name is Mohd Ridzuan Ismail. And I'm asking for help from the government and my boss to rescue us as soon as possible," the sailor said in Bahasa Malaysia in an eight-minute conversation.
"We're suffering in Jolo island. We appeal to the Malaysian government and our boss to negotiate for our release as we want to return home as soon as possible," he said, sounding forlorn.
There is a possibility that Mohd Ridzuan might die in the hands of the Abu Sayyaf who had beheaded its first Malaysian hostage Bernard Then in November last year.
Mr Mohd Ridzuan, who is from Pahang, was kidnapped with four other Sabahan sailors - Tayudin Anjut, 45, Abd Rahim Summas, 62, Mohd Zumadil Rahim, 23, and Fandy Bakran, 26.
Their empty tugboat was found listing in waters off Dent Haven in the Tambisan area of Lahad Datu, close to the sea border with the Tawi-Tawi chain islands in the southern Philippines.
Mr Mohd Ridzuan said they were being held in a jungle.
"Only sometimes we are fed. Even for drinking water, we have to take water from the drain. If there is food, it is only rice to line the stomach," he said.
On whether they were beaten up, Mr Mohd Ridzuan said they were hit with a gun.
"We are frightened. This is not our place. They whack us and they told us that they can shoot us."
At nightfall, he said the captives would be tied up.
"We sleep on the ground. And when it rains, we get soaked," he said.
Asked how many gunmen were keeping watch on them, Mr Mohd Ridzuan said "there were many, too many to count".
Initially, he said his captors would contact his boss but lately the vessel owner had stopped answering the calls.
"Please contact my boss and my family so that they can help us to get home as soon as possible. It has been two months. We don't know what else to do," he said.
A day before Mr Mohd Ridzuan's plea came, the Abu Sayyaf spokesman Abu Rami said in a telephone interview that the captors were asking for 100 million pesos (S$2.82 million) for the release of the Malaysians.
The hostages, he said, were kept in Luuk municipality in Jolo island by an Abu Sayyaf leader identified as Abu Khalif.
He said the hostages were separated into three groups.
"I'm told that the oldest hostage is sick," said the spokesman who identified his group as Al Harakatul Al Islamiyyah. He was probably referring to 62-year-old Abd Rahim.
Asked whether Moro National Liberation Front leader Nur Misuari could negotiate for the release of the victims, he said: "If he has 100 million pesos. If not, then no."
He also claimed there was no military presence where the hostages were being kept, despite reports of an all-out war against the Abu Sayyaf by the Philippine military.
"Why don't they want to counter us?" he challenged.
On Sunday (Sept 25), the Abu Sayyaf spokesman sent two photographs of the hostages to The Star. He couldn't send the photographs earlier as Internet connection in Jolo town was slow.
It is believed that Malaysian authorities are working with their Filipino counterparts to secure the release of the captives.
Sabah police commissioner Datuk Abdul Rashid Harun declined to discuss negotiation on the hostages, merely saying that they were "still waiting".
Deputy Home Minister Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed said he would direct the police to intensify communication and negotiations with the kidnappers to free the victims.
The families of the hostages have kept away from the media. The only statement they have issued so far was that they were praying for the safe return of their loved ones.