Suspected Islamist militants kidnapped the captain of a South Korean cargo ship in the southern Philippines, the first such attack on a large merchant vessel, authorities said Friday.
The abduction on board the 11,400-tonne heavy load carrier Dong Bang Giant 2 by men identifying themselves as Abu Sayyaf militants occurred Thursday despite President Rodrigo Duterte's vows to crush the notorious kidnapping-for-ransom group.
Ten suspects abducted the Korean captain and a Filipino crewman, taking them onto their speedboat before letting the South Korean-flagged cargo ship and the rest of the crew go, regional military command spokesman, Major Filemon Tan, told ABS-CBN television in Manila.
"They identified themselves as Abu Sayyaf Group members... we're looking into this." The International Maritime Bureau's Malaysia-based Piracy Reporting Centre as well as Tan described the attack as a landmark incident.
"This is the first kidnapping incident on a merchant ship in this area as past kidnapping incidents involved tugs and fishing boats," the centre said in an advisory.
"Vessels are advised to maintain strict anti-piracy watch and exercise extreme caution and keep clear of the position given in this report." The attack occurred just off the southern entry of the Sibutu Passage, a 29-kilometre (18-mile) wide channel used by merchant shipping in transit between the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea.
The channel lies off the southern Philippines' Tawi-Tawi islands, which together with the nearby Sulu archipelago are preyed on by Abu Sayyaf militants based in the region.
The cargo ship was heading for South Korea from Australia.
The Abu Sayyaf is a loose network of militants formed in the 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network, and has earned millions of dollars from kidnappings-for-ransom.
The group began abducting sailors in border waters between Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines early this year, taking several dozen hostages.
The spike in abductions sparked Indonesian warnings that the region could become the "next Somalia" and pushed the three neighbours to pledge coordinated patrols.
Tan, the Filipino regional military spokesman, said the previous vessels attacked in the area were all small tugboats.
"This is a big ship. It is not that easy to board a larger ship. It would be very difficult, especially in the open seas," he said of the South Korean vessel.
Tan said that while military patrols had been stepped up, the Philippine navy and coast guard did not have enough vessels to cover such a large area all the time.
Filipino authorities had interviewed witnesses on board the hijacked vessel, with the military now in "hot pursuit" of the kidnappers, Tan added.
The Abu Sayyaf militants also beheaded two Canadian hostages after demands for millions of dollars were not met, and released a Norwegian man along with a number of Indonesian and Malaysian sailors this year after ransoms were believed to be paid.
Military sources say the militants are still holding a Dutch hostage, five Malaysians, two Indonesians and four Filipinos in their jungle stronghold in the southern Philippines.
While its leaders have in recent years pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, analysts say the Abu Sayyaf is mainly focused on a lucrative kidnapping business rather than religious ideology.
Duterte, who took office on June 30, had vowed to destroy the Abu Sayyaf and deployed thousands of extra troops into the group's strongholds to achieve his aim.
Previous Philippine leaders had made similar vows to wipe out the Abu Sayyaf and failed, even with help from military ally the United States.