By P Prem Kumar
Police confirmed Sunday that three Indonesian nationals were kidnapped by armed men off the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah.
Abdul Rashid Harun, Sabah police chief, told a press conference that an unidentified group abducted the Indonesians from a tugboat the previous night.
“Kidnappings are done for various motives but we will have to verify the latest incident first,” he said.
In recent months, more than 20 Indonesian and Malaysian sailors were seized in a number of abductions in the Sulu and Celebes seas by armed groups based in the southern Philippines, where the Abu Sayyaf militant group held them captive.
In early June, the Abu Sayyaf released four Malaysian hostages seized from a commercial barge in the waters off an island in Sarawak state on April 1.
Seven Indonesians were kidnapped in the Sulu Sea later that month, and are believed to currently be held hostage in the southern island province of Sulu — an Abu Sayyaf stronghold.
Harun said that during the abduction Saturday night, five armed men in “military appearance” slipped into the high-security waters of Sabah’s east coast Lahad Datu district to grab the three Indonesian fishermen from a Malaysian-registered fishing trawler.
Among the immediate suspects are an Abu Sayyaf sub-commander known as Apo Mike, who has been responsible for several recent kidnappings involving sailors on tugboats plying the international waters between Sabah and the Philippines.
The gunmen asked for the crew’s passports and seized the three Indonesians while releasing the other staff who lacked documents, Harun said, adding that no shots were fired.
Police said that based on the description given by the freed men, the kidnappers are in their 30s and 40s.
No ransom demand has been received.
The latest kidnapping comes as the Philippines’ military launched a massive crackdown against the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu and Basilan where thousands of troops have been deployed.
In June, defense officials of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to conduct trilateral maritime and air patrols in the three countries’ maritime areas of common concern, particularly in the Sulu Sea, to beef up regional security and thwart criminal activities.
The Sulu Sea is a popular route for cargo and passenger ships, with some vessels falling prey to pirates and kidnappers, while others use the route for smuggling.
Kidnap-for-ransom gangs operating in the region are known to hand over their captives to the Abu Sayyaf and negotiate for a ransom that, if paid, is shared with the group.
Since 1991, the Abu Sayyaf group — armed with mostly improvised explosive devices, mortars and automatic rifles — has carried out bombings, kidnappings, assassinations and extortions in a self-determined fight for an independent province in the Philippines.
Earlier this year, the group beheaded two Canadian hostages after ransoms failed to be paid. It has threatened to decapitate a Norwegian captured with them in September if a P300-million ($6 million) ransom demand is not met.