KOTA KINABALU - About 100 customers were sent scurrying when four gunmen - one brandishing an automatic rifle with ammunition strapped to his chest and another armed with a pistol - burst into the popular Ocean King Seafood Restaurant by Sandakan seafront and took two people hostage.
The gunmen grabbed female restaurant manager Thien Yoke Fun, 50, and Bernard Chen Ted Fen, 36, a tourist from Sarawak, before speeding off in a boat after the 7.30pm raid. Chen was sitting at the table closest to the sea while Thien was taken from the counter. The raid lasted less than a minute.
Restaurant owner, Chung Yan Tsim, said Thien was his sister-in-law.
"The kidnappers fled in a boat. They wore no mask and there was no shooting," he said, adding that the customer was sitting with his family but could not escape in time.
Security forces have gone on alert as Sandakan is only about an hour's speed boat ride away from the southern Philippines island of Bakungan Besar.
They have launched a massive operation to hunt the gunmen, believed to be cross border kidnap gangs linked to the terror group Abu Sayyaf operating in southern Philippines.
When contacted, Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) commander Datuk Abdul Rashid Harun said they were at the scene and taking necessary action. However, he declined to say further.
Sabah police have been hunting for a suspected armed gang of seven men spotted in a plantation in Kinabatangan about 100km from Sandakan earlier this month.
They are also investigating a robbery at a lobster farm at Pulau Bait in Semporna where gunmen robbed workers of valuables but failed to get the owner.
The latest kidnapping is the most daring so far as other instances had involved victims in outlying island resorts around the east coast of Sabah while this took place about three km from Sandakan town.
Home Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said in Kuala Lumpur that they had alerted the Philippines' authorities, including the coast guard, to be on the lookout.
"We have cordoned off the area and police are on high alert," he said.