ZAMBOANGA CITY: Abu Sayyaf rebels in the Southern Philippines freed four kidnapped Malaysian tugboat crewmen on Wednesday following a series of private negotiations, reports said.
It said the four men – Wong Teck Kang, 31, Wong Hung Sing, 34, Wong Teck Chii, 29, and Johnny Lau Jung Hien, 21, – were spirited out of Sulu province after rebels handed them over to unidentified Filipino negotiators.
The Abu Sayyaf kidnapped the crewmen of the tugboat MasFive 6 at sea off Semporna on April 2 and released a photo of the hostages six days later as proof of life.
The photo, which had been uploaded on Facebook, showed the captives squatting and one of them was holding a piece of paper with the word “Victor Troy” and the date April 8, 2016 written on it.
They were believed kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf commanders Hatid Hajan Sawajaan and Alhabsi Misaya, a former member of the larger group Moro National Liberation Front.
It was not immediately known if ransom was paid for their freedom, but the Abu Sayyaf had demanded 18 million Malaysian ringgits for the safe release of the hostages, who are all natives of Sarawak. The military’s Western Mindanao Command and the regional police did not issue any statement on the release of the Malaysians.
Philippine authorities have failed miserably to stop cross-border kidnappings by the Abu Sayyaf in the oil-rich state of Sabah.
Just before the May 9 national elections, two Filipino military generals were sacked for failing to stop the Abu Sayyaf kidnappings inside Sabah. The Abu Sayyaf had in the past beheaded a Malaysian hostage in the Southern Philippines and killed a maritime policeman in a raid on a popular resort in Sabah.
Because of the kidnappings, Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman said they have stopped the decades-old barter trade activity in Sandakan and other east coastal towns there. The closure of the border immediately halted the transshipment of petroleum and gas products from Sabah to the southern Philippines.
Musa also imposed a maritime curfew from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. in seven coastal districts – from Beluran to Tawau. And he also ordered security forces to seize any foreign motorized boats in Sabah waters. He said security forces would also give protection to merchant boats sailing in high-risk areas in Sabah, particularly near the Philippine border.
He also shelved proposed ferry services – to start in May – between Kudat in Sabah and Palawan province in the Philippines, adding that the strict measures reflected the Sabah government’s resolve to rid the east coast of the menace posed by kidnap-for-ransom groups based in the Southern Philippines, according to Malaysian media.