KL, Manila step up search for hostages

Security forces know where they have been taken, says Najib; Sipadan declared off-limits for rescue mission.

A MAJOR search-and-rescue mission by Malaysian and Philippine security forces is under way after six heavily-armed men stole onto a world-famous diving resort off Sabah on Sunday night and grabbed 20 people, including 10 foreign tourists. The gunmen, believed to be Filipinos, then herded the hostages to a fishing boat and headed out to international waters. An American couple managed to escape under the cover of darkness. They ran into Sipadan Island’s dense primary jungle and emerged only after first light.

Not as lucky were two French nationals, three Germans, two South Africans, two Finns, a Lebanese, eight Malaysians including a police officer, and two Filipino workers.

Malaysian Defence Minister Najib Tun Razak said yesterday that security forces had identified the area where the hostages were being held.

He declined to furnish any more details or comment on the possibility of navy commandos being used in a rescue operation, except to say that a crisis-management team was mapping out strategies.

Police yesterday declared the island off-limits.

Malaysian police chief Norian Mai cautioned that Sipadan was surrounded by smaller islands, and this hampered efforts to locate the captors’ boat.

“We have been advised they are still alive,” Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said.

As yet, no demands have been made by the kidnappers, who were armed with AK-47 assault rifles and a bazooka. But the authorities believe that politics is behind the hostage-taking and do not rule out the hand of Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim insurrectionist group in the southern Philippines.

The drama at Sipadan Island unfolded at 8 pm on Sunday, when a group of men surprised an officer manning a police post. After that, they walked into the dining hall of a resort and rounded up the hostages.

They did not take any valuables, did not state their purpose, and spoke English with a heavy accent.

The island is about an hour’s boat ride from Sabah.

In Manila, Philippine President Joseph Estrada ordered the navy and the coast guard to tighten patrols in the southern Philippine waters as the Malaysian ambassador to the Philippines held closed-door meetings with military and police authorities.

Defence Secretary Orlando Mercado told a press conference that the gunmen spoke Tausug, the dialect of a tribe in the southern Philippines notorious for piracy, smuggling and slave-trading.

“These people were known to have brought their victims to Tawi-tawi and Basilan, or in that particular direction,” he said, referring to two islands at the southern-most tip of the country.

Philippine authorities were also investigating a possible link with the Abu Sayyaf group, which have been holding hostage some 20 people on Basilan island for over a month now.

“It is possible that this could be a diversionary tactic by the Abu Sayyaf because of the pressures they are feeling now in Basilan,” he said.

Meanwhile, Indonesian naval bases in Balikpapan, Palu, Panakan, Nunukan and Bitung – all near the Sipadan area – have been ordered to be on the alert. Patrols have also increased.

RESORT ISLAND KIDNAP TERROR

Six heavily-armed masked men storm Sipadan island on Sunday, force 20 people onto a fishing boat and take off towards the Philippines.

THE HOSTAGES Eight Malaysians, three Germans, two French, two South Africans, two Finns, two Filipinos and one Lebanese. Two Americans managed to escape.

THE KIDNAPPERS Philippine officials checking if the attackers are linked to the Abu Sayyaf rebel group.

JOINT RESCUE OP The Philippine and Malaysian navies are coordinating rescue efforts.

WHERE IT HAPPENED SIPADAN – A diving paradise off Sabah, a 45-minute boat ride to the Southern Philippines.

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