Pirates take 4 Indonesians hostage in South China Sea

A boat heading towards fishing grounds off the east coast of Natuna Besar.
A boat heading towards fishing grounds off the east coast of Natuna Besar. PHOTO: REUTERS

Pirates struck again in the South China Sea, taking four Indonesian hostage at 6.31am on Friday (April 15).

The four men were part of a crew of 10 manning the tugboat TB Henry, which was towing a barge called Christi, and en route to Tarakan in North Kalimantan from Cebu in the Philippines.

The hostage-takers, strongly believed to be Abu Sayyaf militants, did not manage to seize either the tugboat or the barge.

One of the crew members was shot in the chest when they stood up to the militants, but he and the remaining five were rescued and taken to the Port of Lahad Datu in Sabah, said Indonesia's Foreign Affairs Ministry on Saturday (April 16).

"Despite having suffered gunshot wounds (the crew member who was shot) is in stable condition," said a ministry spokesman.

He added that his ministry is working with owners of the vessels as well as the authorities in Malaysia and the Philippines, as the incident occurred in waters that border the two countries.

"The Indonesian government will take steps to address this frequent occurrence of piracy in the region," he added.

This is the third reported incident of piracy in just over two weeks involving a tugboat and barge formation and the second involving Indonesia-flagged vessels.

Abu Sayyaf militants had abducted 10 Indonesians from the tugboat Brahma 12 and barge Anand 12 some time around March 29, and demanded more than US$1 million (S$1.4 million) for their release.

The Philippine militant group also took the MV Massive 6 tugboat and its crew of nine hostage on April 1 while it was en route from Tawau in Sabah, Malaysia, to Samarinda in East Kalimantan.

The MV Massive 6 and five of its crew - three Indonesians and two Myanmar nationals - have since been released but the Abu Sayyaf is still holding the remaining four Malaysian crewmen.

The Philippine armed forces believe the hostages are being held in the autonomous region of Muslim Mindanao in southern Philippines, where key elements of the Abu Sayyaf are based.

Indonesia has also set up a special task force of experts in counter-terrorism, intelligence and diplomacy to resolve the hostage crisis.

Efforts to recover the Indonesians have intensified since news broke last week of heavy casualties suffered by the Philppine army during a fierce firefight with the Abu Sayyaf on Basilan island, 1,400km south of Manila.

The Abu Sayyaf was formed by disgruntled Moro Islamic fighters in 1991 with funding from Al-Qaeda.

It is known for extortions, kidnappings, beheadings and bombings and is now loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group.

Meanwhile, four hostages taken by Abu Sayyaf militants on Sept 21 last year from the Holiday Oceanview Samal resort in the strife-torn Philippine island of Mindanao, are still alive - a week after a deadline for payment of their ransom had passed.

Two Canadians, a Norwegian and a Filipino kidnapped last September by Abu Sayyaf militants in the Philippines are still alive, a week after a deadline for payment of their ransom passed.

In a two-minute video viewed by The Straits Times, the hostages are shown asking their governments to pay 900 million pesos (S$26.5 million) by 3pm on April 25.

Towards the end of the video, a hooded figure is heard saying the new deadline was "an ultimatum".

He also said that if their demand for ransom is not met, they would be beheading "one of among these four" starting April 25.

tkchan@sph.com.sg