Abu Sayyaf militants still eyeing high-value ransoms on Sabah's east coast

KOTA KINABALU (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - After a key Abu Sayyaf sub-commander escaped death in an armed assault, there are concerns that militants are still eyeing Sabah's east coast for their kidnappings despite the recent Philippine military crackdown in their stronghold in Jolo.

Regional intelligence sources said Hatib Hajan Sawadjan, who is trying to marshal his forces to kidnap high-value targets in Sabah waters, escaped unhurt in last Friday's (Nov 16) 90-minute combat in Jolo island.

However, the sources confirmed that Hajan's brother Taha was killed in the gunfight with the Philippine military during an operation to locate 15 hostages including two Indonesian trawler crew members snatched from Semporna waters in Sabah on Sept 11.

The sources said Taha was not involved directly in kidnappings but served as one of the key men guarding the hostages.

The sources added that Hajan, together with another sub-commander, Indang Susukan, had sent out groups to prowl the Sulu sea between the southernmost Philippine island group Tawi-Tawi and Sabah's east coast to kidnap high-value targets.

Following the violence in Jolo, the Philippine media, quoting Western Mindanao Command spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Gerry Besana, initially reported that Hajan was among those critically wounded.

Lt-Col Besana had said that Hajan was immediately carried away from the scene by his followers in the fighting that saw seven soldiers and a militant killed.

Military sources said at least 17 soldiers were injured.

Since September, intelligence reports from the Philippines have said that Abu Sayyaf contracted criminal elements from the Tawi-Tawi area to carry out fresh kidnappings after a lull following an all-out war against the group.

Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) commander Hazani Ghazali, when met, said security forces in eastern Sabah had thwarted at least 10 recent attempts by suspected Filipino cross-border kidnap groups trying to sneak into the state.

Datuk Hazani said the intruders were spotted by air patrols and they fled when sea patrols moved closer to the sea border with Tawi-Tawi.

"We have good cooperation with our counterparts in southern Philippines who provide us information about criminal movements on the border," he said, adding they believed most of the criminal elements had split up in recent weeks.