KOTA KINABALU (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - A new kidnap ploy seems to be emerging in abductions off the east coast of Malaysia's state of Sabah by Filipino gunmen.
Instead of kidnapping hostages off the land or islands, the gunmen have switched to grabbing them off ships or vessels plying the border waters between Malaysia and the Philippines.
On March 26, in the Philippines Tawi Tawi chain of islands close to Sabah, 10 gunmen linked to the Abu Sayyaf terror group abducted 10 Indonesian crewmen from two Taiwanese registered tugboats - Brahma 12 and Anand 12.
One of the tugboats was found adrift near Laguyan in Tawi Tawi but the 10 Indonesians vanished along with their captors.
Later, the Abu Sayyaf, who was holding them hostage, demanded 50 million pesos (S$1.5 million).
In a similar modus operandi on Friday (April 1) night, eight gunmen boarded Malaysian tugboat MV Masfive 6 near Pulau Ligitan off the east coast of Sabah that borders the Celebes Sea, which is flanked by Philippines and Indonesia to the north and south respectively.
But the gunmen only took the four Malaysian crewmen - Wong Teck Kang, 31, Wong Hung Sing, 34, Wong Teck Chii, 29, and Johnny Lau Jung Hien, 21 - all from Sarawak. They left behind the three Myanmar and two Indonesian crew members.
Those left on the tugboat alerted their company at about 7pm on Friday, soon after the gunmen had fled in a high-powered twin-engine grey speedboat towards the Philippines.
The remaining crew headed to Tawau where police are piecing together the events that took place.
Sabah Police Commissioner Abdul Rashid Harun said it looked like the cross-border kidnap groups were starting a new trend and operating along the borders in view of the heightened security in Sabah's east coast.
"Due also to the on-going curfew, the latest incident occurred at the periphery of the Sabah-Philippine border.
"These criminals no longer choose their victims. They will take just about anyone as long as it's easy for them to grab and leave."
Datuk Abdul Rashid said they were unsure at the moment which group was responsible for the latest kidnapping, adding that they were waiting to hear from their counterparts in southern Philippines.
He said this when asked whether the notorious kidnap-for-ransom Muktadir brothers with links to Abu Sayyaf were involved in raiding the tugboat, which was on its way back to Tawau after unloading timber in Manila.
When contacted, Tawi Tawi police chief Elizalde Quiboyen said there were no reports of any sightings or landings by the kidnappers or their hostages on any of their islands and added that police, navy and coastguard personnel were on high alert.
Initial intelligence reports seem to indicate that the kidnappers were not the Muktadir brothers (responsible for half a dozen abductions in Sabah) although their involvement has yet to be ruled out.
Sources in Jolo said the four Malaysians had yet to land in Jolo where Abu Sayyaf gunmen were holding the earlier 10 Indonesians abducted under notorious Abu Sayyaf sub commander Alhabsy Misaya.
Some sources claimed that they were being held by another commander, Sawajan.
The last kidnapping involving a Malaysian vessel took place on April 11, 2004. Three sailors - two Sarawakians and a Indonesian skipper - were kidnapped in the same waters between Sandakan and Tawi Tawi.
The Sarawakians died of natural causes during their captivity and the Indonesian was released.
The last time gunmen abducted hostages from the mainland was from the Ocean King Seafood Restaurant, not far from Sandakan town on May 4.
One of them, restaurant manager Thien Nyuk Fun, 50, was released on Nov 8, while the other, Sarawakian tourist Bernard Then, was beheaded on Nov 17 after failed negotiations.