Malaysia and the Philippines were co-operating last night to secure the release of about 20 people, half of them foreign tourists, kidnapped by a heavily armed gang from a tropical resort island off Borneo, in eastern Malaysia.
Malaysian officials said they had located the whereabouts of the group, who were taken captive late on Sunday on the scenic island of Sipadan, an internationally renowned diving centre. They said they believed them all to be safe and alive, but gave no further details.
The Philippines Defence Secretary, Orlando Mercado, said the navy had been ordered to intercept the gunmen who were believed to be heading for the Philippines in two fishing boats. The hostages were thought to include nine Malaysians, three Germans, two French, two Finns, one Lebanese, two South Africans and one Filipino.
What was unclear was whether the gunmen, who were armed with rocket launchers and automatic weapons, were Filipino Muslim rebels fighting for an Islamic state in the southern Philippines or some of the pirates active in the waters between eastern Malaysia and the southern Philippines.
Two American tourists, both aged 51, managed to escape when the six masked gunmen took the group hostage at their resort after storming the police station and the wildlife and forestry centre on Sibadan, which is about 20 miles off Sabah, the Malaysian side of Borneo island. The two men ran off into woods and then raised the alarm.
There was mounting speculation last night that the gunmen might be Philippines Muslim extremists who have recently extended their campaign for a separate Islamic state. Mr Mercado, said the attackers spoke Tausug, a dialect used in the Mindanao region of the southern Philippines. They also appeared to be fluent in English.
The Philippine authorities, who were pounding the southern rebel stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf rebel group yesterday to try to free dozens of hostages held by the militia, put the air force and navy on alert last night. The separatist rebel group has been holding 27 people hostage, many of them children, for the past five weeks.
Mr Mercado said that if the gunmen who seized the foreign tourists in Sipadan were from Abu Sayyaf, it could be a "diversionary tactic" aimed at the armed forces and police in the southern Philippines.
A photographer who was at the Sipadan resort when the gunmen stormed it said they took his wallet, watch and mobile telephone before ordering the group of holidaymakers to swim out to the two boats.
The resort, which is surrounded by white sand beaches and the clear waters of the Sulawesi Sea, is a famed diving area about 45 minutes by boat from the Philippines.Reuse content