Abu Sayyaf gunmen holding two foreign women abducted from the Malaysian island of Semporna, Sabah, are believed to have returned to their lair in notorious Jolo island.
Philippine military and police tracking the group led by Murphy Ambang Ladjia, better known as Haji Gulam, suspect that the gunmen have moved out of their Simunul base on Tawi Tawi island and headed to the Abu Sayyaf stronghold of Jolo, which has been called "the kidnap capital of the Philippines".
Sulu provincial police chief Supt Abraham Orbita said security forces had received reports of gunmen arriving at Jolo island with Chinese tourist Gao Huayun, 29, of Shanghai, and Filipina hotel employee Marcy Dayawan, 40, who were snatched from the Singamata Reef Resort late Wednesday.
"We are trying to confirm these reports," he said when contacted by telephone in Jolo yesterday.
He said security forces had been keeping a close watch on the coastline of islands around the Sulu province for signs of the gunmen and the abducted women.
Sabah officials, who declined to be identified, said a telephone call had been received from an anonymous individual claiming that he and his group were holding the two women.
It could not be ascertained to whom the call was made or whether it was a genuine claim.
However, both Sabah Police Commisisoner Hamza Taib and Eastern Sabah Security Command director-general Datuk Mohammad Mentek said they had not received any report of a ransom call.
Hamza said that Malaysian police were in contact with their Philippine counterparts and were providing whatever assistance required to secure the release of the two women.
Both women were reported to be alive and well on Friday by intelligence sources, and they are likely to be held in a village under the control of Abu Sayyaf in Jolo.
Meanwhile, Philippine deputy presidential spokesman Abigail Valte said in Manila that the country's armed forces were focusing their search in Jolo and other nearby southern islands.
Valte said Philippine security forces had mounted naval blockades in their search for suspicious vessels.
"We have also alerted the West Mindanao Command units in Basilan, Sulu and Tawi Tawi," she said.