Abu Sayyaf militants take two more Indonesian hostages

MANILA - Philippine security officials said on Sunday (Nov 20) that suspected militants from the brutal Abu Sayyaf Islamist group have abducted the captain and a crewman of a Malaysia-registered fishing trawler. 

Both were Indonesians.

Major Filemon Tan, spokesman of the military’s Western Mindanao Command, said Mr Saparuddin Kone, the skipper, and Mr Sawal Maryam, were taken at around 7.30pm, on Saturday (Nov 19).

Five men on a speedboat chased and boarded Mr Kone’s boat as it sailed off Kunak district, in Malaysia’s Sabah state.

Major Tan said a task force in Tawi-Tawi province, about 1,200km south of the capital Manila.

This is the fourth kidnapping along the porous borders between the Philippines’ Sulu archipelago, stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf, and Sabah, reported over the past two weeks.

On Nov 6, a group of Abu Sayyaf bandits abducted a German adventurer, Mr Jurgen Kantner, 70, after killing his wife, Ms Sabine Merz, from a yacht sailing off Tanjong Luok Pisuk.

Just hours earlier, two Indonesian fishing boat captains, aged 52 and 46, but whose names were not released, were snatched in separate incidents waters off Sandakan.

On Nov 11, gunmen intercepted a Vietnamese bulk carrier passing through a strait of Basilan province, near Tawi-Tawi, abducting six sailors and shooting another.

The Abu Sayyaf, a small but brutal group of extremists that has pledged allegiance to the Islamist State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has defied more than a decade of US-backed military offensives against it and gone a lucrative kidnapping spree in recent years. 

Though the group officially has a separatist, Islamist agenda, it has become better known for banditry and tactics that have proved highly effective, and earned large sums of money.

Since March, Abu Sayyaf gunmen have been intercepting slow-moving tug boats towing coal barges in waters near the borders of Malaysia and the Philippines, taking captive more than a dozen Indonesian and Malaysian sailors.

Several hostages had been freed, but experts say in those cases it is almost certain ransoms were paid. 

A Norwegian, Mr Kjartan Sekkingstad, 56, was released in September  after the Abu Sayyaf received US$638,000 (S$909,692) in ransom for his release.

Mr Sekkingstad was abducted from a high-end tourist resort in September 2015 alongside a Filipino, Ms Marites Flor, who has already been freed, and two Canadians.

In April and June, the Canadians - John Ridsdel, 68, and Robert Hall, 67 - were beheaded after ransoms were not paid.

One of the Abu Sayyaf’s biggest recent windfalls is believed to have come in 2014 when it claimed to have been paid more than US$5 million (S$6.7 million) for the release of German physician Stefan Okonek, 71, and his companion, Ms Henrike Dielen, 55, abducted from aboard their yacht.

The Abu Sayyaf still has 16 captives, including Mr Kantner, a Dutch, five Malaysians, two Indonesians and seven Filipinos.

Efforts to hunt down the group’s heavily armed, well-stocked and mobile units with a network of checkpoints and battalions of soldiers have proven to be ineffective – and even fatal for both troops and hostages - in the past.

On April 9, Abu Sayyaf gunmen killed 18 Filipino soldiers searching for hostages in a day-long battle.

The only operation that led to some measure of success was in 2002, when US-backed Philippine special forces units ambushed a group of bandits holding American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham, and a Filipino nurse, Ms Ediborah Yap.

Mrs Burnham was rescued, but her husband and Ms Yap were killed in the ensuing crossfire.

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

Its chieftain Isnilon Hapilon has been recognised by ISIS as a council leader.