MANILA, Philippines – Gunmen who kidnapped a Chinese tourist and a Filipino worker from a Malaysian resort have brought their captives to an island township in the Philippines’ southernmost province, authorities said Friday.
The kidnappers, believed to be Abu Sayyaf militants, brought the two women to Simunul in Tawi-Tawi province, Philippine presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said, citing a military report.
The women were seized late Wednesday from the Singamata Reef Resort in Semporna district in the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah. The resort is popular with Chinese tourists.
The kidnapping was a reminder of the security threats in Sabah, a popular tourist destination a short boat ride from the southern Philippines, home to Muslim militants and kidnap gangs.
A naval task force is searching for the gunmen and their captives around Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi provinces, which comprise scores of islands southwest of Manila where the militants operate, said regional military spokeswoman Capt. Rowena Muyuela.
In carrying out the kidnapping, seven men armed with rifles, four of them masked, arrived at the resort on a speedboat, according to Malaysian police.
The gunmen seized the tourist – a 28-year-old woman from Shanghai – from the balcony of her room, police said. The Filipino woman, 40, was a receptionist at the resort.
China said its consulate in the Malaysian city of Kuching had mobilized staff to deal with the kidnapping and urged local authorities to ensure the safety of Chinese citizens.
China’s ties with Malaysia have come under stress recently because of anger among Chinese over the search for a missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner carrying 153 Chinese passengers.
The Abu Sayyaf, a militant Muslim group, has carried out seaborne kidnappings for ransom in the region before. In 2000, Abu Sayyaf gunmen snatched 21 European tourists and Malaysian and Filipino workers from Malaysia’s Sipadan diving resort and brought them to the southern Philippines, where they eventually were released in exchange for large ransom payments.
In November, suspected Abu Sayyaf militants killed a Taiwanese tourist and kidnapped his wife from a resort in the Semporna area. The woman was released a month later in the southern Philippines.
The Abu Sayyaf had links to international militant networks, including al-Qaida, but a U.S.-assisted Philippine military crackdown has weakened it considerably in recent years. The group, which is on the U.S. list of terror groups, has about 300 fighters and is now much more focused on ransom kidnappings than global jihad.
Kidnap gangs are holding more than a dozen captives in the southern Philippines, including two European bird watchers who were seized from Tawi-Tawi province in 2012.