Malaysia's security forces have dealt a serious blow to the notorious Abu Sayyaf group by killing the leader of a squad that has been snatching tourists, fishermen and sailors in waters off Sabah and the Philippines' Sulu archipelago, Philippine officials said on Saturday.
Abraham Hamid, the alleged kingpin, was among the three men killed by police officers from Malaysia's Tiger Platoon in a shootout last Thursday evening off Sabah's Semporna town, the officials said.
"The death of Hamid is a big blow to the (Abu Sayyaf) as it neutralised one of the notorious bandits' leaders and will degrade their capability for spotting and kidnapping victims in the future," Major Filemon Tan, spokesman for the Western Mindanao Command, said in a report.
The other two who were slain were Hamid's men, said Major Tan, without identifying the men.
He said Hamid led bandits that snatched two Canadians, a Norwegian and a Filipina from a high-end resort in Samal island, Davao province, 980km south of the capital Manila, in September last year.
Canadians Robert Hall, 50, and John Ridsdel, 68, were beheaded in April and June this year.
Filipina Marites Flor, 40, was released in June, while Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad was freed in September after a ransom was paid.
Major Tan tagged Hamid as a "spotter" who commanded a unit that prowled the porous borders separating Sabah and Sulu looking for victims that they would then hand over to bigger groups in the Abu Sayyaf's jungle strongholds in the Sulu and Basilan islands.
He also confirmed earlier reports that two others - Samsung Aljan and Awal Hajal - had been arrested. There were two more reported missing, along with one hostage.
Hamid's group, using a twin-engine, 80-horsepower speedboat, had pounced on two fishing trawlers on Thursday evening, taking one hostage from each boat.
They then approached a third unmarked vessel that turned out to be filled with policemen from the elite Tiger Platoon.
The Abu Sayyaf has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which has recognised its chieftain, Isnilon Hapilon, as a "prince" of mujahideen.
Though the group officially has a separatist Islamist agenda, it has become better known for banditry and tactics that have proved highly effective in earning it large sums of money.
Since March, Abu Sayyaf gunmen have been intercepting slow-moving tugboats towing coal barges in waters near the borders of Malaysia and the Philippines, taking captive more than a dozen Indonesian and Malaysian sailors.
The Abu Sayyaf still has as captives German sailor Jurgen Kantner, a Dutch national, five Malaysians, two Indonesians, six Vietnamese and seven Filipinos.