LAHAD DATU - Moments after fish farm operator Chan Sai Chiun and a worker were whisked off by Filipino gunmen - the third kidnapping in three months, they were seen heading towards the Alice Reef route into southern Philippines.
Chan, 32, and his Filipino worker, Maslan, 20, were taken in a speedboat from their farm in Kunak, about 60km from Lahad Datu, by at least four gunmen during a 12.45am raid yesterday.
There are reports that Maslan escaped from their clutches after he jumped off the boat and swam ashore to lodge a report.
Police are hunting for the gunmen, who have apparently crossed over to Tawi Tawi province in the southern Philippines with their hostage.
Sabah CID chief Senior Asst Comm Omar Mammah said the kidnappers, who were apparently wielding "long guns" - possibly M16 rifles - rowed into the fish farm jetty, some 500m from the Kg Sapang coast.
"Chan and his wife came out of their room on hearing noises outside," he said.
"The gunmen immediately confronted Chan and ordered him into their boat while his wife managed to escape into a room.
"We are not sure when they picked up Maslan as the wife did not see him," he said, adding that the worker had been staying close to the couple's room at the farm, which Chan and his two partners only opened three months ago.
SAC Omar said the gunmen, believed to be a Tawi Tawi-based kidnap-for-ransom group, had rowed the 5m-long, 40hp boat to slip quietly into the farm.
"The whole raid lasted less than five minutes - and no shots were fired," he said, adding that, besides Maslan, the farm had two other workers.
All security forces under the Eastern Sabah Security Zone (Esszone) had been mobilised and a hunt was immediately launched, added SAC Omar.
Police, he said, was also checking on Maslan's background to see if he was a legal worker besides follow-up operations to find any local links.
He also did not rule out the possibility that the gunmen might have entered Sabah days earlier.
"These kidnap-for-ransom groups are looking for 'commodities' and it does not matter if they are tourists or fish farm operators," he said.
In Kuala Lumpur, Home Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said he believed the Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) to be effective in ensuring the security of Sabah's east coast.
Describing the gunmen as a "vindictive lot", he called on the security forces to strengthen their intelligence-gathering and exchanging of data with their Filipino counterparts.
He told reporters this after receiving a courtesy call from US ambassador to Malaysia Joseph Y. Yun.