KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Unidentified gunmen kidnapped a Chinese tourist and a Filipino hotel worker, both women, from a beach resort on an island in Malaysian Borneo, the Chinese and Malaysian authorities said Thursday, spurring an international manhunt for the assailants by law enforcement officials.
The abductions, which occurred late Wednesday, appeared to be the work of insurgents from the nearby islands of the southern Philippines who have been fighting the Filipino government for years, security experts said. The incident risked complicating the fraught relationship between China and Malaysia, which has suffered additional strain since the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
The women were taken from the Singamata Reef Resort, a diving and snorkeling retreat built on stilts above a reef off Sabah, a state in eastern Malaysia.
Chinese tourists at the resort told the Chinese daily Huaxi Metropolitan Daily that they had heard gunshots as a group of gunmen stormed the hotel, grabbed the victims and spirited them away on speedboats. Photos posted on the newspaper’s website and reportedly taken during the attack show hotel guests crouching behind upturned tables. There were about 60 Chinese guests at the hotel at the time, the paper said.
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Various armed groups, including Muslim separatist factions fighting to establish an independent state, operate throughout the southern Philippines and use kidnappings for ransom to help finance their operations. Some of these groups operate with near impunity in the Sulu Archipelago of the southern Philippines, close to eastern Malaysia.
While no group immediately claimed responsibility for the kidnappings, security experts said Abu Sayyaf, a particularly violent group that has in the past been linked to al-Qaida, was likely responsible.
Mars S. Buan, senior analyst with Pacific Strategies and Assessments, a risk assessment firm based in Manila, said the kidnappers were believed to be operating under the command of Murphy Ladja, an insurgent in the Filipino province of Sulu, who was also implicated in the kidnapping of foreigners and resort workers in Sipadan, Malaysia, in 2000.
The Foreign Affairs Department of the Philippines said in a statement Thursday that the country’s maritime forces and anti-kidnapping teams were “actively and closely coordinating with their Malaysian counterparts in exchanging information and in working toward the speedy resolution of the case.”
An employee at the hotel who answered the phone Thursday confirmed the incident but declined to provide further information.
Kidnappings in the Muslim-dominated parts of southern Philippines, especially in the Sulu Archipelago, have sharply increased recently, Buan said. During the last two months, there were at least 10 kidnappings in Sulu and nearby areas in Mindanao, the southernmost major island of the Philippines. The victims included residents and tourists.
Kidnappings in Malaysia by Filipino armed groups are far less frequent, happening about once a year in recent years.
Though it is listed as a terrorist group by the United States and has in the past been linked to al-Qaida, Abu Sayyaf is most often classified these days as a kidnap-for-ransom group and is thought to have fewer than 100 fighters. But its tendency to commit audacious acts of violence — such as beheadings, rapes and kidnappings — and its links to international terrorist organizations, have given it an outsize profile. The group has become the prime concern of the 500 or so U.S. Special Forces soldiers stationed in Zamboanga City, who are serving as anti-terrorist advisers to Philippine forces.
In Beijing, Hong Lei, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said China’s consulate in Kuching, Malaysia, had sent personnel to the site of the kidnapping. Speaking at a daily news briefing, Hong said the Chinese Consulate in Kuching had “asked that the local police wholeheartedly undertake a rescue, while ensuring the safety of our citizens, and take effective measures to ensure that our tourists in the area are safe.”
The consulate issued several travel advisories last year regarding safety concerns in the Semporna district of Sabah.
On Thursday, the abduction became the most-discussed topic on Weibo, the Chinese social networking site.