Authorities have found a boat they suspect was used by kidnappers to take a group of mainly Western hostages to an island stronghold of the bandit group Abu Sayyaf, the military said Saturday.
The outrigger boat was found Friday on Jolo, more than 500 kilometers southwest of the Samal island resort where two Canadians, a Norwegian and a Filipina were abducted late Monday, Brig. Gen. Alan Arrojado announced.
Jolo is the main base of the Abu Sayyaf, an Al-Qaeda-linked group that has been blamed for the Asian country’s deadliest terror attacks as well as ransom kidnappings of foreign tourists and Christian missionaries.
“We have eyeballed the seacraft, but not the kidnap victims from Samal,” Arrojado, head of a Jolo counter-terrorism task force, told reporters.
Officials would not say if the discovery pointed to possible Abu Sayyaf involvement in the kidnapping of Canadian tourists John Ridsdel, 68, and Robert Hall, 50, as well as Norwegian resort manager Kjartan Sekkingstad and Hall’s Filipina girlfriend.
No group has claimed responsibility for the abductions.
A Manila Times source from the intelligence community however, said the police are eyeing a certain “Tanum” group from Patikul, Sulu as the ones who abducted the foreigners.
Arrojado said the 25-meter (82-foot) boat suspected of taking the hostages to Jolo was found abandoned at the coastal town of Parang. It was fitted with two onboard engines, but was taking in water apparently from a breach on its hull, he added.
Regional police spokesman Antonio Rivera told AFP that of all the “threat groups” in the south, those based on Jolo were the ones most skilled in using boats.
However, he added: “We cannot say that they (Abu Sayyaf) are involved at this time.”
The authorities earlier said they had received reports the kidnappers had taken their victims to the impoverished Davao Oriental.
However Rivera told AFP Saturday “no boat was seen there (Davao Oriental) contrary to what was earlier reported”.
Jolo-based Abu Sayyaf and several other renegade Muslim rebel groups have in recent years collaborated in kidnapping foreigners elsewhere in the south, with the victims eventually taken to back Jolo, retired police general Rodolfo Mendoza, who once headed the PNP intelligence group, said
“They have done it not only on western Mindanao (including Jolo) but they are now also doing it on the eastern Mindanao side,” said Mendoza, president of the Manila think-tank Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism.
He said he had no information on whether this was the case in the Samal kidnapping.
Capt. Roy Trinidad, a spokesman for the military’s anti-terror task force, said there is no confirmation the hostages were taken to Sulu, one of five provinces under the Muslim autonomous region. “We have no confirmation about these reports, but we continue to search for the abductors and their victims. The operation is going on and we have alerted our forces to be on the lookout,” he told The Manila Times.
Trinidad said the military is getting a barrage of intelligence and all these information are still being verified. “There are so many intelligence reports saying the hostages are in Sulu, Davao Oriental and all these are raw information unless verified and confirmed, but nothing so far,” he said.
Police authorities also said there were no indications the hostages were taken to Sulu.
Sulu’s Area Coordinating Council also said it has no information whether the victims had been transferred to the province. The Sulu Area Coordination Council – organized during the time of then Sulu Gov. Sakur Tan – is where various agencies converge to address issues, resolve conflicts and find the best solution to current problems besetting the province.
The province has a total of 20 Area Coordinating Centers – one for each of Sulu’s 19 towns and the central headquarters in Patikul town.
Last year, police authorities said it up a Special Anti-Kidnapping Task Force to address the threats of kidnappings and abductions in Sulu.
Gov. Totoh Tan has previously said that many kidnapped victims were taken from other provinces and cities only to bring and hide them in Sulu, dragging the province to a situation that gives a bad impression to the local peace and order situation.
But while local government officials and multi-sectoral sectors work hand in hand to address the rising criminality and the threats posed by the Abu Sayyaf, other groups with political agenda have resorted in spreading false reports of kidnappings and killings and other black propaganda in social media, including Facebook, to further scare the public and destroy the reputation of different leaders in Sulu.
Locals have condemned and others protested the spate of kidnappings in Sulu and some also launched online campaign in social media to denounce the kidnappings in the province.
Police and military have tightened security on Samal Island, a favorite destination of foreigners and Filipino holidaymakers in southern Philippines because of its pristine beaches and diving and snorkelling sites.