KOTA KINABALU: Negotiators who were working to secure the release of Malaysian engineer Bernard Then (pic) were caught off guard when the Abu Sayyaf upped the ransom demand.
The initial agreement for the release of the 39-year-old Sarawakian, along with restaurant manager Thien Yoke Fun, 50, was 30mil pesos (RM2.7mil) but then shot up to 80mil pesos (RM7.4mil).
Jolo-based anti-kidnapping activist Prof Octavio Dinampo told The Star that Abu Sayyaf leader Indang Susukan, who was holding the victims, had agreed on the lower sum.
But close to the exchange, an uncle of Susukan came into the picture and demanded more money.
Refusing to budge, the Abu Sayyaf only released Thien on Nov 8 since they only got 30mil pesos.
The gunmen also gave the negotiators a week to come up with the rest of the ransom, said Prof Octavio, who has knowledge of the negotiations.
He said there were at least two teams of Filipino and Malaysian negotiators.
"I believe that when it became clear to the Abu Sayyaf that no additional money was coming, they killed Then," Prof Octavio said.
He doesn't believe that a Philippine military offensive against the Abu Sayyaf a few hours before Then was killed was the reason for murdering the engineer.
"The offensive has been going on for more than a year," he said, adding that Then's physical condition could not have been a factor either.
Then had reportedly sustained leg wounds that made it difficult for him to move, a liability for the gunmen who had to move quickly to avoid government patrols.
It had also been reported that Then had lost his spectacles, making it hard for him to see properly.
According to other sources in Jolo, the Abu Sayyaf had raised the ransom demand to 370mil pesos (RM34.2mil), making the situation impossible for the negotiators.
Other sources reported that the gunmen had killed Then when they became upset after some of the ransom they got for Thien was hijacked by other militant groups.
Prof Octavio said the sack with Then's severed head was thrown into Jolo town, a sign from the Abu Sayyaf that they took the non-payment of the ransom seriously.
"They have done this before and it is a message that no one should play around with them," he said.
A former Abu Sayyaf kidnap victim himself, the activist has grassroots sources on the ground to feed him information.
In a statement yesterday, Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman said: "We tried our best to negotiate his release but unfortunately it did not materialise."
Then and Thien were kidnapped from the Ocean King seafood restaurant in Sandakan on May 14.
The Philippine army reported that Then was beheaded by his captors on Tuesday.