Sailors return to Indonesia after escaping abduction off southern Philippines

Five Indonesian sailors who survived an attempted hijacking arrive at a port in Tarakan, Borneo Island, Indonesia on April 23, 2016.
Five Indonesian sailors who survived an attempted hijacking arrive at a port in Tarakan, Borneo Island, Indonesia on April 23, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

Five Indonesian sailors who escaped an abduction from a tugboat off southern Philippines more than a week ago arrived in North Kalimantan on Saturday (April 23).

The men were among a crew of 10 manning the tugboat TB Henry which was hijacked by the militant group Abu Sayyaf as they were sailing from Cebu in the Philippines to Tarakan in North Kalimantan on April 15. Malaysian authorities had then come their rescue.

A crew member, who was wounded during a shootout between Malaysian authorities and the militants, is still undergoing intensive medical treatment at a hospital in Sabah, a navy spokesman Colonel Suradi Agung Slamet told The Straits Times.

Four of their fellow crewmen were taken hostage by members of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group.

The militants had, in three separate incidents at sea, kidnapped a total of 14 Indonesian seafarers in the past few weeks, and four Malaysian sailors.

The spate of hostage-taking has raised alarm in Southeast Asia that the Abu Sayyaf is employing a new tactic of abducting sailors for ransom in the seas of southern Philippines and northeast Sabah.

In the past, the group's usual tactic was to raid islands along the Sabah coast to kidnap tourists and resort or restaurant workers for ransom. But the raids have dwindled down after Malaysia boosted security along 1,400km of the Sabah coastline under the Eastern Sabah Security Command or Esscom.

Foreign ministers and armed forces commanders from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines are expected to meet in Jakarta on May 3 to discuss the possibility of joint patrols in the waters of north-east Borneo island - in the areas around the Sulu Sea and Celebes Sea.

The five rescued Indonesia men were on Saturday escorted by Malaysian authorities to the border between Malaysia and Indonesia, and then handed over to Indonesian navy in North Kalimantan.

"The men are all healthy and are now in Tarakan. They will undergo a medical check-up to see that they are physically and psychologically fit before they are returned to their families," Col. Suradi said.

The hostage-takers "were certainly from Abu Sayyaf", but they did not manage to seize either the tugboat or the barge which it was towing, he said.

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

The owner of the Indonesian boats has agreed to pay 50 million pesos (S$1.45 million) in ransom, but Col. Suradi yesterday declined to comment on the negotiations or confirm if the sum had been paid.

On April 1, four Malaysians aboard the MV Massive 6 tugboat was kidnapped as they were returning to Tawau, Sabah after delivering a timber cargo to Manila.

aarlina@sph.com.sg