KOTA KINABALU: A veteran cross-border criminal who goes by the alias "Apo Mike" is believed to have led the kidnapping of four Malaysian sailors in international borders near Pulau Ligitan, off Semporna, in the Celebes Sea.
The key suspect, who has many aliases, is known to both Philippine and Malaysian intelligence and is believed to be attempting to slip into the notorious Abu Sayyaf stronghold of Jolo with the hostages, amid heightened naval security around the island.
Sources told The Star that the kidnappers were among known cross-border gangs operating in islands along the Tawi-Tawi islands, whose sea borders are shared with Sabah's east coast.
However, they declined to disclose further details as Philippine security forces are working at thwarting the group's intention to get out of Tawi Tawi and into Jolo.
According to sources, the group was not working with the more notorious Muktadir brothers group responsible for at least half a dozen abductions.
Authorities on both sides of the border are indicating that they have no information on the whereabouts of the gunmen and their hostages, and there has been no ransom call made in the last 48 hours since the hostages were taken.
The four Malaysians - Wong Hung Sing, 34, Wong Teck Kang, 31, Wong Teck Chii, 29, and Johnny Lau Jung Hien, 21, all from Sarawak - were grabbed from the tugboat MV Massive 6 which was returning to Tawau after delivering a cargo of timber in Manila at around 6.15pm on Friday.
The English/Tagalog speaking gunmen left the three Myanmar and two Indonesian crew members behind before fleeing towards the Philippines in a grey high-powered speedboat.
The crew raised the alarm immediately to company officials in Miri at about 7pm on Friday.
Tawi-Tawi police chief Sr Supt Elizalde Quiboyen said yesterday they had not received any report from the villagers on the islands of any landings by the kidnappers and their hostages.
Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) spokesman Major Filemon Tan Jr only said that search operations had been launched in the areas of Tawi-Tawi and Sulu.
He said they were coordinating with Malaysian authorities over the abductions that come nearly a week after Abu Sayyaf gunmen seized 10 crew members of an Indonesian tugboat and took them to Jolo.
Sabah Police Commissioner Datuk Abdul Rashid Harun also said there was no sign of the kidnappers or their hostages within Sabah waters or nearby.
Police in Tawau are continuing to record the statements of the crew members, including the Indonesian skipper.