KOTA KINABALU: Two Malaysian hostages taken from Ocean King Seafood Restaurant in Sandakan are reportedly being held at a village on Jolo island in the southern Philippines.
Restaurant manager Thien Nyuk Fun, 50, and Sarawakian tourist Bernard Then Ted Fen, 39, were disoriented and frightened but unharmed after they were taken to a village in Indanan early Friday.
According to Filipino security forces and social workers, the two hostages were being guarded by a dozen gunmen.
Reports are emerging that the four gunmen who grabbed them on Thursday were negotiating to hand them over to the Abu Sayyaf militant group.
It is understood that the kidnappers led by two Muktadil brothers - Mindas Muktadil and Kadafi Muktadil - were negotiating a handover of the two hostages to either Abu Sayyaf commander Indang Susukan @ Jihad or sub-commander Alhabsy Misaya.
However, neither Philippine nor Malaysian authorities have confirmed sightings of the gunmen or the hostages.
Sulu-based anti-kidnapping activist Prof Octavio Dinampo said it was likely that they would be handed over to the Susukan group now led by the youngest sibling Jihad.
Jihad is the brother of Mujib Susukan who was among the southern Philippine gunmen involved in the kidnapping of 21 people - Malaysians and foreigners - from Pulau Sipadan in 2000.
The suspicion is that Jihad and his brother Indang masterminded this abduction.
They used to live in Jampiras which is in the Sandakan Bay area, Prof Dinampo said, adding that the Susukan group had about 30 followers and was likely to be backed up by dozens of local groups.
Jolo police believe Alhabsy had "financed" the abduction of Thien and Then, spending about one million pesos (RM80,200) and provided the M16 rifles and pistols as well as a high-powered speedboat.
Police officials in Jolo, however, said they had received information that the victims might have been taken to Sitio Bullo village in Parang municipality on the island.
Sabah Police Commissioner Datuk Jalaluddin Abdul Rahman said they were verifying a telephone call received by security forces, purportedly demanding an undisclosed amount of ransom for the release of the two Malaysians.
Then's wife Chan Wai See, who had come with her husband for a holiday in Sandakan, is waiting at a friend's house for a call from the kidnappers.
Thien's family is also praying for their safe return.