Armed guards mount watch on paradise as rebels claim to have 21 more hostages

The rhythms of life on Sipadan Island, in eastern Malaysia, were measured, until two days ago, by the plop of scuba divers vanishing beneath the surface of crystal waters.

Tourists still lounged on the island's sugar-white sands yesterday, and snorkelled in the waves, home to turtles, sharks and barracuda. But in an incongruous addition to an otherwise idyllic scene, a policeman with an M-16 rifle stood guard on a jetty and a naval gunship was anchored 500 yards off shore.

The tropical serenity so prized by visitors to Sipadan, a world-renowned dive centre 20 miles off the coast of Sabah state, was shattered on Sunday night when six armed gunmen stormed one of its resorts and abducted 21 people including 10 foreign tourists.

An air and sea search by Malaysian and Philippine military forces failed to locate the captives yesterday, while militant Philippine Muslim guerrillas claimed responsibility for seizing them.

The claim by the Abu Sayyaf group has yet to be verified and was withdrawn by the rebels themselves a few hours after it was made, in an apparent attempt to sow confusion.

If true, it would mean that the group - three Germans, two French nationals, two South Africans, two Finns and a Lebanese tourist, all guests at the Pulau Sipadan Resort, plus nine Malaysians and two Filipino resort workers - have become caught up in a lethal game of geopolitics and sectarian extremism.

Sipadan, a 30-acre coral speck considered one of the world's top 10 dive sites, is a 45-minute boat ride from Philippine waters and is also near the Indonesian border.

A source close to Abu Sayyaf, which is fighting for an independent Muslim state in the mainly Catholic Philippines, said that the hostages were being held in the Tawitawi group of islands, in Sulu province, an hour from Sipadan. A Philippine police intelligence report confirmed the location.

The same rebel group has been holding hostage 27 Filipinos, mainly schoolchildren, on the southern island of Basilan, 275 miles across the Celebes Sea from Sipadan, for the past month. It claimed last week to have beheaded two male teachers.

Abu Sayyaf is demanding the release from jail in the US of two Muslim militants, including Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the bombing of New York's World Trade Centre in 1993. Philippine government forces launched a massive assault on Abu Sayyaf's mountain stronghold on Basilan, killing 20 rebels, on the day the tourists were abducted.

The six kidnappers, who were armed with AK-47 assault rifles and a rocket launcher, captured everyone they encountered on their way to the dining room in the Sipadan resort, made them swim to two fishing boats and then headed out to sea.

An American couple, Mary and James Murphy, who managed to escape, were counting their blessings in Kuala Lumpur yesterday. "I was there to scuba dive," said Mr Murphy, 51. " It could happen to anyone on holiday." The events have sent a shudder through the Malaysian tourism industry, the country's third-biggest foreign revenue earner. The Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamed, sought to reassure foreign visitors that other parts of Malaysia were safe.

Eight million tourists visit Malaysia every year, and 400,000 of them go to Sabah, on the northeastern tip of the island of Borneo.tourism was crippled on the Indonesian island of Lombok, near Bali, earlier this year by ethnic violence.

Sipadan, so small that it can be circled on foot in 20 minutes, rises sharply for 2,100 feet above the seabed, which is so rich in coral reefs, sponges and anemones that it has been likened to an aquatic rainforest. The abundant sea life includes black-tip sharks, moray eels and clownfish. Leatherback turtles lay eggs on the beach during the breeding season.

The region is also infested with pirates, who, if Abu Sayyaf's claim proves to be an empty boast, are the other possible culprits.

Semporna, the Sabah port town from which boats leave for Sipadan, was attacked by pirates three times in 1996. Pirates attacked the neighbouring coastal town of Lahad Datu in 1995, killing 11 people.

Malaysian navy vessels and marine police boats patrolled international waters yesterday, while police helicopters and Air Force planes searched overhead. In the Philippines, two naval gunboats and a reconnaissance plane scoured the southern coastlines

Five people were arrested in Sabah, and were said by police sources to include former workers at the Pulau Sipadan Resort, who had connections to the local fishing community and were suspected of facilitating the abductions.

Although the resort has been cleared and the island declared off-bounds, tourists remain at the other resorts.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own