SEMPORNA - Malaysian and Philippine security forces are scouring scores of islands in the Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi provinces for a former Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) soldier known as "Haji Gulam" and his men.
Haji Gulam is said to have led the raid on Singamata Reef Resort where two foreign women - a Chinese tourist and a Filipina - were kidnapped.
Although little is known about Haji Gulam, whose real name is Murphy Ambang Ladjia, he is believed to be an Abu Sayyaf sub-commander and was also involved in a spectacular kidnapping of 21 people in Sipadan on Easter Sunday in 2000.
He is believed to have recently joined an Abu Sayyaf unit based in Simunul municipality on the Tawi Tawi islands, which straddle the sea border along Sabah's eastern tourist paradise of Semporna.
Twenty of the hostages - many of whom were Europeans and other foreigners - were released within five months, reportedly after hefty ransoms were paid. A final Filipino captive was held until 2003.
Philippines Armed Forces spokesman Lt-Col Ramon Zagala told the country's media that their military had yet to receive any sighting or intelligence report on the seven gunmen and their hostages - Gao Huayun, 29, from Shanghai, and Filipina Marcy Dayawan @ Mimi, 40, a resort staff.
It is believed that the hostages would be taken to Simunul, a Muslim-majority town of about 35,000, about 145km from the resort where the two were kidnapped - or about a day's boat ride.
"The information received so far is that the abductors might have headed into the municipality in Tawi-Tawi after eluding Malaysian authorities who were pursuing them," Lt-Col Zagala told the Philippine media.
The Philippine military's Sulu Task Force commander Brig-Gen Martin Pinto told The Star that they were focused on gathering intelligence on the possibility that the gunmen were holding the hostages within the Tawi Tawi area.
Various naval and ground forces are stepping up operations in the area.
"We remain on alert," he added.
Sabah Police Commissioner Datuk Hamza Taib also confirmed that police had identified the group responsible but declined to say who they were.
"We believe they crossed over to the Philippines. So far, no call for ransom has been received," he said.
On Wednesday, three gunmen barged into the resort at 10.30pm, grabbing Mimi before taking Gao as they fled towards their speedboat where four other accomplices were waiting. The raid lasted just five minutes.
The Abu Sayyaf was set up in the 1990s, reportedly with seed money from al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden.
Its gunmen have defied US-backed military campaigns against the outfit by melding into and drawing support from Muslim communities in the southern Philippines, who feel that they have been persecuted for centuries by Christian rulers in Manila.