KOTA KINABALU • Malaysian security forces shot dead three kidnappers and arrested two others in a 20-minute firefight on the seas off Sabah's Semporna town after they intercepted a boat with seven gunmen on Thursday evening.
The gunmen had earlier attacked two fishing trawlers and took one hostage from each boat, before approaching a third unmarked vessel, which turned out to be filled with policemen from the Tiger Platoon.
In the firefight, two of the gunmen appeared to have escaped with a kidnap victim from one of the trawlers, police said.
They did not say who the kidnappers were, but the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group is known to operate in the seas in southern Philippines and eastern Sabah in search of victims to kidnap.
The gunmen who were involved in the shootout on Thursday were armed with four rifles and a pistol, police said.
They were believed to be based in the Philippines' Tawi-Tawi chain of islands close to Sabah waters.
A massive search is ongoing for the two gunmen and their hostage.
One of the men from the Tiger Platoon was shot in the foot and is recovering in hospital.
The Abu Sayyaf, entrenched in its island strongholds that include Jolo and Basilan, is holding 22 captives, most of them foreigners, demanding tens of thousands of dollars for their freedom.
It beheaded two Canadian captives earlier this year, sparking international condemnation.
The Philippines' Inquirer newspaper reported in October that the Abu Sayyaf had pocketed at least 353 million pesos (S$10 million) in ransom from January to June this year alone.
Malaysia's police chief Khalid Abu Bakar yesterday congratulated the Tiger Platoon, which is part of the General Operations Force, the infantry arm of the Malaysian police.
In Zamboanga City, the Philippine military said it was still verifying the report of the firefight in Malaysian waters.
Sabah police commissioner Abdul Rashid Harun said the armed group, in a blue twin-engine 80-horsepower speedboat, had first approached the fishing trawler Yakin 2.
They clambered aboard and robbed the fishermen of valuables, cellphones and food before kidnapping the boat's skipper.
Datuk Rashid said the gunmen destroyed all communications equipment, before attacking another fishing trawler.
In the confusion caused by the attack, many crewmen from the second fishing vessel jumped into sea.
The gunmen managed to cart away an outboard engine before kidnapping one other person.
As they headed out, they approached an unmarked boat, which turned out to be manned by the Tiger Platoon, resulting in the shootout. The skipper from the first trawler was released.
To curb piracy and banditry by the Abu Sayyaf, the Philippines has given permission for Malaysian and Indonesian authorities to enter its waters in "hot pursuit" of the Filipino kidnappers.
The three countries are also discussing holding joint patrols in the area.
THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK