KUALA LUMPUR - China pressed Malaysia on Thursday to rescue a Chinese tourist who was abducted along with a Filipina from a diving resort by gunmen, further straining relations already tested by the crisis over missing Flight MH370.
The two women were abducted in Malaysia's eastern state of Sabah, which is known for its natural attractions such as world-class scuba diving, but is also notorious for lawlessness and recurring kidnappings blamed on bandits from the Muslim southern Philippines.
Gao Huayuan, 29, a tourist from Shanghai, was taken along with Filipina hotel employee Marcy Dayawan, 40, in a raid by about six gunmen at around 10:30 pm (1430 GMT) Wednesday, Malaysian media reports said.
The raid occurred at the Singamata Reef Resort near the town of Semporna on Borneo island.
Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak said the attack could be an attempt to stir up more trouble between China and Malaysia.
"The government does not rule out the possibility that the kidnappings in Semporna were done by certain parties to muddy Malaysia-China relations," Najib was quoted saying by a Malaysian news agency.
He spoke while on a visit to the Australian staging base for the massive search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, the majority of whose passengers were Chinese.
It was not known who the kidnappers were or where the victims were taken. Bandits have in the past abducted tourists and fisherman in the area and taken them to nearby Philippine islands.
But China urged Malaysian police to rescue its citizen and ensure safety.
"We sent relevant staff to the site and ask the local police to make an all-out rescue effort while ensuring the security of Chinese citizens and taking effective measures to safeguard the security of Chinese tourists," foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters.
It said China would "follow this incident closely".
Malaysian police have declined comment, and resort staff could not immediately be reached.
The incident is another blow for the image of Sabah, and for Malaysian tourism, already blackened by the MH370 tragedy.
More than 200 armed Islamic guerillas from the Philippines staged a bizarre invasion of eastern Sabah last year, and were crushed by Malaysian armed forces after a month-long siege. Dozens of people were killed.
Malaysia ratcheted up security in the area afterwards and has repeatedly pledged it is safe for visitors. But abductions and other incidents have continued.
Malaysian security forces patrolled nearby seas Thursday in search of the gunmen, reports said, and a military official in the adjacent southern Philippines said his country's forces were standing by to help.
China's consulate on Borneo island on Thursday advised its nationals to "pay attention to personal safety" when travelling to eastern Sabah state's world-renowned dive sites, which include the island of Sipadan, and avoid "remote islands".
Flight MH370 vanished on March 8 with 239 people aboard, including 153 Chinese nationals, sparking heavy criticism for Chinese relatives, and pressure from Beijing.
Chinese state media have reported that fewer holiday-makers from China were booking Malaysian tours in the wake of MH370.
Chinese tourism has earned increasing revenue for Malaysia.
Some 1.8 million Chinese visited last year, a 15 per cent annual increase, making China the third-biggest source of visitors to Malaysia.
Eastern Sabah has seen several kidnappings over the years.
In the biggest single case, armed Philippine gunmen took 21 hostages at the diving island of Sipadan in the year 2000, including 10 tourists from Europe and the Middle East. All were eventually released.