SANDAKAN, Malaysia - A massive hunt is underway on both sides of the Malaysia-Philippines sea border for Filipino gunmen who brazenly abducted two Malaysians from a popular seafood restaurant here.
As Sabahans reeled in shock over the latest daring raid on a restaurant on the mainland, 3km from here, Malaysian security forces and their Filipino counterparts combed the islands along their borders for the gunmen who snatched Ocean King Seafood Restaurant manager Thien Nyuk Fun, 50, and Sarawakian engineer Bernard Then Ted Fen, 39, during a raid on the restaurant on Thursday evening.
The kidnappers are believed to be linked to the extremist Abu Sayyaf group based in Jolo.
Security forces on either side of the border have yet to spot the gunmen and their hostages but Philippine officials suspect that they might be hiding in islands off Tawi Tawi, which straddles the Sabah coast, before moving to the Abu Sayyaf stronghold of Jolo.
Sabah Police Commissioner Datuk Jalaluddin Abdul Rahman said there had been no calls for ransom and security forces had cut off escape routes.
Tawi Tawi senior police officer Sr Supt Ely Quiboyn said patrols had been increased in Taganak and Pulau Bakungan Besar but there had been no sightings.
The commander of the Joint Task Force in Sulu, Col Allan Arrojado, said it was very likely the work of the Abu Sayyaf group, adding that they were likely to be hiding in Tawi Tawi before trying to slip into Jolo.
Malaysian police have not discounted the possibility that the kidnapping was carried out by the notorious Muktadir brothers, a Tawi Tawi-basedcross border kidnap group that was behind at least five kidnappings between Nov 15, 2013 and July 12, 2014.
There have been a few unsuccessful attempts to kidnap fish farmers in Sabah's east coast with the latest on May 7 when four masked men robbed workers of a lobster farm in Pulau Bait in Semporna.
Police have also been hunting for seven armed men believed to be responsible for two murders during three robberies at oil palm plantations in Lahad Datu, Kinabatangan and Sandakan over the past month.
Security officials do not rule out the possibility that the Pulau Bait incident was a case of distraction to allow another group to hit Sandakan.
The security forces' focus in hunting for the gunmen probably gave this group a chance to slip into Sandakan, said a source who did not rule out the possibility that gunmen had been in Sandakan for awhile.