POSTED: 7:19 p.m. HST, Apr 2, 2014
LAST UPDATED: 6:10 a.m. HST, Apr 3, 2014
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia >> A kidnap-for-ransom gang based in the southern Philippines is suspected of seizing a Chinese tourist and a receptionist from a dive resort in eastern Malaysia, authorities said Thursday.
The kidnapping late Wednesday underscored the persistent security threats in Sabah state, a popular tourist destination a short boat ride from the southern Philippines, which has long been home to a dangerous mix of Muslim militants and kidnap gangs.
Seven men armed with rifles, four of them masked, raided the Singamata Reef Resort after arriving there on a speedboat, according to a police statement. The 28-year-old woman from Shanghai was seized from the balcony of her room, Sabah police Commissioner Hamza Taib told local media. The other victim was a 40-year-old female Philippine citizen.
The statement said police suspected the group had "inside help" from someone at the resort but didn't elaborate.
Taib said the gang would likely sell the victims to another militant group that would seek ransoms, and was believed to have already left Malaysian waters for somewhere in the southern Philippines.
Philippine maritime security units and anti-kidnapping operatives were working with Malaysian authorities to achieve a "speedy resolution of the case," the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
The Singamata is a resort popular with Chinese tourists in the Semporna district of the state, which is on the Malaysian side of Borneo Island. The resort has cottages and restaurants on stilts over the water, making it hard to protect from seaborne attackers.
At a regularly scheduled briefing Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China's consulate in Kuching city 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 the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner, which was carrying 153 Chinese. The plane has yet to be found.
A Philippine intelligence official said earlier the attackers were believed to be from the Abu Sayyaf, a militant Philippine Muslim group that has carried out seaborne kidnappings for ransom in the region before. The official didn't give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Last 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 tenuous historical links to international militant networks, including al-Qaida, but a U.S.-assisted Philippine military crackdown on the group's heartland in Sulu province in the southern Philippines has weakened it considerably in recent years. The group has about 300 fighters and is these days 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 the Philippines' Tawi-Tawi province in 2012.
In 2000, Abu Sayyaf gunmen crossed the porous maritime border with Malaysia in speedboats and 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. Malaysian authorities worried that the kidnappings tarnished the country's image as a tourist destination, and have beefed up security and patrols along the sea border.
The U.S. State Department advises its citizens not to travel to eastern Sabah because of the risk of kidnap.
With more than 100 million Chinese traveling overseas last year, China's diplomats have been called on to deal with an increasing number of emergencies, both big and small. Foreign Minister Wang Yi said last month that protecting Chinese citizens abroad is now a top priority for his ministry.
Prior to the kidnapping, China had issued no warning to its citizens about visiting Sabah.
On Thursday, the consulate in Kuching posted a warning about the security situation in the region.
Gomez reported from Manila, Philippines. Associated Press writers Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Chris Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.