Malaysia's police chief said Tuesday that five tugboat crew missing since last week were abducted by the militant group Abu Sayyaf, which is notorious for repeated kidnappings in waters between Malaysia and the Philippines.
The five Malaysians were kidnapped from their vessel on July 18 off the coast of the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo island, Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar told reporters.
"The five tugboat crew have been kidnapped by the kidnap-for-ransom group from the southern Philippines," he said, confirming reports that had emerged over the past week.
The Philippine military however could not confirm if the sailors had been abducted by the Abu Sayyaf.
"Yung nawala confirmed yan, ang basis namin reports din ng Malaysia," Western Mindanao Commmand spokesperon Major Filemon Tan explained. "Kung saan dinala, dito tinuturo sa atin, sa ASG daw. Eh, wala naman lumulutang na sub-group na nagsasabing nasa kanila at di pa nai-report ng intelligence na may sighting sa area kaya ganoon."
Tan added that neither had any group claimed abducting the mariners. What the Abu Sayyaf had admitted to was the kidnapping of three Indonesians last July 10.
The Abu Sayyaf, a loose network of Islamic militants that has earned millions of dollars from kidnappings in recent years, has been blamed for a recent burst of abductions.
In April and June, the group beheaded two Canadian tourists after ransom demands were not met, and a Malaysian man was beheaded last year.
In May, the Abu Sayyaf released 14 Indonesian sailors who had been kidnapped in two high-seas raids, attacks that prompted Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines to launch joint patrols.
Formed in the 1990s, the Abu Sayyaf is a radical offshoot of a Moro separatist insurgency in Mindanao.
Its leaders have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, but analysts say the Abu Sayyaf mainly focuses on lucrative kidnappings.
Eastern Sabah is just a short boat ride from islands of the southern Philippines where government authority is weak and banditry common.
Earlier in July, three Indonesians were kidnapped in the area, and in late June seven other Indonesians were taken. — with a report from Agence France-Presse/Joseph Tristan Roxas/DVM, GMA News