SEMPORNA - The kidnappers of the two women from the Singamata Reef Resort off Sipadan were also involved in the abduction of a Taiwanese woman from Pom-Pom Island last year and 21 people from Sipadan Island in 2000.
"One of them is believed to be involved in the kidnap of Taiwanese woman on Nov 15 in Pom Pom Island, while the rest are believed to be involved in the Sipadan island kidnapping (of 21 people) in 2000," Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) director-general Datuk Mohammad Mentek said in a statement.
He said that based on intelligence received, Chinese tourist Gao Huayuan, 29, and Filipina resort employee Marcy Darawan, 40, were being held on an island in southern Philippines by Abu Sayyaf gunmen and were in good shape.
"We believe that this particular kidnap for ransom group is active and aggressive in the southern Philippines," he said, adding that the local Filipino community might have provided information to the gunmen.
He also disclosed that 15 of the resort's foreign workers have been detained for not possessing valid travel documents.
He has directed the Immigration Department to carry out a full investigations and take action, including charging the operator for employing foreigners without valid documents.
"We cannot compromise anymore because we have given enough advice and reminders to all operators in the area, but many refuse to adhere to it," he said.
The director-general also said that before Wednesday's incident, security forces spotted five boats that were attempting to get into Semporna on March 26.
"The presence of our forces in area managed to deter four boats from entering Semporna waters," he said, without elaborate what happened to the fifth boat.
Meantime, AFP reported that Philippine soldiers have been deployed to a remote southern island where suspected Islamic militants are believed to have taken the two female hostages.
The Abu Sayyaf, a small band of militants infamous for kidnappings for ransom, are the prime suspects in Wednesday's abductions, armed forces spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala told the news agency.
He said the seven gunmen aboard a white speedboat are believed to have taken the women from the diving resort in Malaysia's Sabah state across the maritime border to the remote Tawi-Tawi islands in the southern Philippines.
"What is important is to... block them (from fleeing) and find them," Colonel Zagala said, adding that an undisclosed number of naval forces, including marines, had been sent to one of the islands.
He said the hostages are believed to have been taken to Simunul, a majority-Muslim town of about 35,000 people living on two tiny islands more than 1,000 kilometres from Manila.
Simunul is about 145 kilometres from the resort where the two were kidnapped, or about a day's boat ride.