MANILA, Philippines>> Suspected Abu Sayyaf militants holding an American woman and her son in the southern Philippines allowed them to talk briefly to their family in the United States as proof they were alive and to press a ransom demand, two security officials said Sunday.
The cellphone call to the U.S. was traced from southern Basilan province, where Abu Sayyaf gunmen were suspected to have brought Philippine-born U.S. citizen Gerfa Yeatts Lunsmann, her 14-year-old son and 19-year-old Filipino nephew after seizing them at gunpoint Tuesday from a nearby island village, the two senior Philippine officials said.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
Government forces have been deployed to ensure the captives are not moved far from the mountainous area where they believe up to 100 Abu Sayyaf militants and allied gunmen were holding the hostages, one of the officials told The Associated Press by telephone.
Kidnappings for ransom have long been a problem in the impoverished region and are blamed mostly on the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf, a group also notorious for beheadings and bombings.
U.S.-backed offensives have weakened the group, which is blacklisted by Washington as a terrorist organization, but it remains a key security threat.
Mayor Celso Lobregat of southern Zamboanga City said without elaborating earlier that U.S. authorities have informed Philippine officials that the kidnappers called the captives’ family and demanded money.
Lobregat declined to disclose other details, including if the kidnappers identified themselves.
“There was a call to the family, and a demand was made,” Lobregat told The AP.
Regional police commander Felicisimo Khu Jr. said investigators were aware of the huge ransom demand.
Lunsmann, a 41-year-old veterinarian who lives in Virginia, was born to a Muslim family in a village on Sacol Island off Zamboanga, where she and her son were vacationing with relatives when they were snatched, Khu said.
She was adopted by an American couple as a child and grew up in the United States. She has visited her Philippine home province at least five times before, Khu said.
Khu said authorities suspect the captives were being held in Basilan by at least three groups of gunmen led by Abu Sayyaf commanders Nurhassan Jamiri and Puruji Indama, who have been blamed for previous abductions and beheadings of hostages.
There was suspicion earlier that the captives may have been brought to southern Zamboanga Sibugay province, where some of the kidnappers, former Muslim rebels from another group, are based, Khu said, citing intelligence.
The last time Americans were held hostage in the southern Philippines was in 2001, when Abu Sayyaf militants kidnapped three Americans and 17 Filipinos from a western Philippine resort then took them by speedboat to Basilan, about 550 miles (880 kilometers) south of Manila.
One of the Americans was beheaded in Basilan. A second American was wounded but rescued while her husband was killed in an army rescue in the Zamboanga Peninsula a year after they were abducted. Since then, hundreds of U.S. troops have been helping train and arm local troops battling the Abu Sayyaf.
The gunmen continue to hold an Indian man, a Malaysian truck driver and a Japanese convert to Islam who were separately abducted on nearby Jolo Island, officials said.
The militants usually snatch victims on opportunity and may prefer foreigners because they believe they would fetch a higher ransom.
Associated Press writer Teresa Cerojano contributed to this report.