Sabah waters, which have so far been calm for the past two years, are turbulent again following the abduction of two Indonesian fishermen at gunpoint from their fishing vessel off Semporna.
The two masked men, believed to be armed with M16 rifles, stormed the fishing vessel manned by four fishermen shortly after it docked at the Pulau Gaya jetty near Semporna between midnight and 1am early Tuesday.
The abduction was believed to be committed by a southern Philippine group seeking ransom in the Sulu and Celebes seas since March 2017, according to a Singapore-based agency that combats piracy on the high seas.
The fishermen were taken away by two abductors who had boarded their fishing boat to an unknown location, around 12:30 a.m. near Gaya island off Malaysia's Semporna district, Sabah acting Police Commissioner Omar Mammah was quoted by The Star Online as saying on Wednesday.
"We believe the kidnapping case is related to a kidnap-for-ransom group, however, we still haven't received any ransom demand. We also are not yet discounting the case as a terror-related one," Omar said.
The victims were identified as boat skipper Samsul Saguni, 40, and his assistant, Usman Yunus, 35, Omar said.
A crewmate who identified himself as Bakri said he believed the kidnappers were from the southern Philippines because they spoke Suluk, a Philippine dialect.
"I don¿t understand what they were saying but they were speaking Suluk, a language I always hear spoken. Earlier, I had heard the sound of a boat approaching our boat," a safe crewmate told BenarNews.
"I noticed something was amiss when I went up to the boat's deck and found the light had been turned off. In the darkness, I saw the shadows of two men carrying rifles, which prompted me to head back down to the lower deck where I hid," he said.
Omar further said the kidnapping was the first in Sabah this year and the fishing boat had a license to operate during curfew hours in the Eastern Sabah Security Zone.
Sabah Chief Minister Shafie Apdal said authorities would focus on rescuing the kidnap victims.
"I've requested that action be taken although the kidnap victims are Indonesian," he said during a Maal Hijrah or Islamic New Year celebration in Sabah¿s capital city.
"We will intensify our patrol and intelligence gathering so that we can find these perpetrators and the kidnaped victims," he said. "We will ensure the victims are found safe because they were taken from our waters and it is our responsibility to our neighbor Indonesia."
In the meantime, Indonesian Ambassador to Malaysia Rusdi Kirana has requested the employer of the two Indonesian fishermen reportedly abducted in Semporna waters in the Malaysian state of Sabah to ensure that their rights are fulfilled.
"Our representatives in Tawau have helped us in ensuring that the rights of the abducted fishermen are fulfilled by their employer," Kirana noted in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday.
The two fishermen were working on a local fishing vessel in the Semporna waters in the Malaysian state of Sabah.
Both fishermen are from West Sulawesi Province with passports issued in Palopo District of South Sulawesi Province.
Two other crew members survived the abduction attempt, as they had hidden themselves in one of the fishing boat's compartments. They later reported the incident to the police in Semporna.
Both the police and Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) confirmed the abduction, which is the first of its kind in the past two years.
Spokesman for Sabah Police Omar Mammah confirmed the abduction, saying that the police are still investigating the motive behind the abduction.
He noted that the two fishermen were sailing on a boat when the armed group kidnapped them and then took them to an unknown location.
Shortly upon receiving the report of abduction, the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur immediately took action to save the two fishermen.
Both the indications of the kidnappers or request for ransom still remain unknown.
"It is indeed an eye-opener for Indonesia and Malaysia to further increase security (cooperation). It is not easy to do so in such vast seas, but this (incident) should not happen again," Kirana noted.
Currently, some three thousand Indonesian fishermen are working in Malaysia. In addition to the latest abduction of two fishermen, three other Indonesian fishermen are still held hostage to date.