Philippines-based groups 'likely behind Sabah abduction'

Philippines-based groups 'likely behind Sabah abduction'
A photo showing armed men near a door of the hotel, taken by a tourist who was taking shelter on the floor on April 2, 2014.

KUALA LUMPUR - Sabah police say they believe kidnap-for-ransom groups from the southern Philippines are responsible for the abduction of a Chinese tourist and a Filipino hotel worker from a diving resort, an incident that could further strain ties between Malaysia and China.

They also suspect that seven armed men had "inside help" to get into the resort, The Star Online quoted Sabah police chief Hamza Taib as saying yesterday.

"It looks like kidnap-for-ransom groups are behind this. (They) come in, abduct the victims and then sell them to other groups," he told reporters in Kota Kinabalu after visiting the crime scene at the Singamata Reef Resort in Semporna on the east coast of Sabah. He said anyone entering the resort needed to be brought in or let in by staff.

The two women were abducted at 10.30pm on Wednesday by men armed with M14 rifles. Police believe the Chinese tourist, Ms Gao Huayuan, in her 20s, was possibly picked up randomly. She had arrived that same day with two friends for a diving course.

Mr Hamza said Ms Gao was on a verandah speaking on the phone when armed men, making away with Filipina Marcy Dayawan, 40, grabbed her, reported The Star.

"I was told that the Chinese girl was screaming and saying in English, 'I don't want to go'," Mr Hamza added. He said no shots were fired and no one was injured in the raid that lasted about 30 minutes. Police arrived minutes after the gunmen escaped.

Malaysia's security forces are scouring the country's sea borders with the southern Philippines in search of the women.

This incident comes amid strained ties between Malaysia and China over a Malaysia Airlines plane that vanished on March 8. About two-thirds of the 239 people on board were Chinese nationals, whose relatives have accused Malaysia of hiding information from them.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was in Perth yesterday to observe search operations for the missing plane, said Malaysia was not ruling out the possibility that the abductions were a deliberate act to sour relations with China.

"There may be those who are attempting to drive a wedge between us and China. They may be trying to take advantage of the situation," he was quoted as saying by The Star Online.

"I'm not dismissing any possibilities but the priority now is to obtain the release of the victims," he said, adding that he believed ties with China would remain strong.

China's Ambassador to Malaysia Huang Huikang said the kidnappings were not related to the missing plane, but asked Malaysia to intensify security measures to ensure the safety of tourists.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the Chinese consulate in Sabah had demanded "that local police fully put into effect rescue work on the basis of guaranteeing safety and to ensure the safety of Chinese tourists there".

"The Chinese Foreign Ministry will pay close attention to how the situation develops," he told a regular news briefing.

The Philippines has alerted its navy ships to be on the lookout for the gunmen and is also working with its Malaysian counterparts towards a speedy resolution of the case, officials said.

The kidnappers' identities are unknown, though the radical Abu Sayyaf group from the southern Philippines was behind previous abductions off Sabah.

In 2000, Abu Sayyaf gunmen kidnapped 20 tourists from a Sipadan resort for ransom. Last November, a Taiwanese woman was seized by suspected Abu Sayyaf men who shot dead her husband. She was released more than a month later after her family reportedly paid a ransom.

This article was published on April 4 in The Straits Times.

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