MANILA, Philippines (AP) – Police said Friday that local thugs, not al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf militants, were likely to have abducted two European tourists this week in the southern Philippines.
Police Director Felicisimo Khu said the kidnappers had not contacted authorities or made any ransom demand.
Ewold Horn of the Netherlands, Lorenzo Vinciguerra of Switzerland and their Filipino guide, Ivan Sarenas, were abducted Wednesday during a bird-watching trip to Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines’ southernmost province. They were the latest kidnap victims in an impoverished region infested with al-Qaida-linked militants and criminal gangs that often seek ransom for their foreign hostages.
Sarenas escaped hours later by jumping off their captors’ boat after he saw some fishermen, who rescued him.
Khu said he doubts the gunmen were Abu Sayyaf members because there is no known Abu Sayyaf presence in the province. But Tawi-Tawi is home to rebels from the Moro National Liberation Front, which signed a peace pact with the government in 1996.
“There are no indications that they are Abu Sayyaf,” Khu said in a telephone interview, adding that the abductors were likely local thugs.
He said the kidnappers freed unharmed an unarmed policeman, a town councilor and a boat skipper who were accompanying the bird watchers, and did not shoot Sarenas when he jumped out of the boat to make his escape _ uncharacteristic of the brutal Abu Sayyaf militants, who are notorious for kidnappings and beheadings.
The abductors also appeared to be have bungled in failing to take Vinciguerra’s bag, which contained more than $1,000 worth of foreign currencies, and Sarenas’ bag, which had expensive cameras.
Police recovered the belongings from the motorized outrigger from which the victims were seized.
Sarenas said the victims were transferred to another boat, then a third boat. He said he escaped when he realized the boat was speeding toward Jolo island, a stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf.
But Khu said that the boat was small and that there was no extra fuel on board for the 12-hour trip to Jolo.
Police said the kidnappers landed in Tawi-Tawi’s Languyan township and burned their boat in a bid to hide its owner.
Sarenas said he, Horn and Vinciguerra arrived in Tawi-Tawi on Sunday in search of the Sulu hornbill, said to be the most endangered hornbill in the world.
Tawi-Tawi is famed for virgin beaches surrounded by crystal blue waters. But like most areas in the restive southern Philippines, it is undeveloped because of years of violence, including ransom kidnappings, bomb attacks and fighting between troops and Muslim rebels.
After spending three days in a mountain forest, the three were heading back to the provincial capital of Bongao by boat Wednesday when five rifle-toting gunmen on another boat fired warning shots and intercepted them, Sarenas said.
Muslim insurgents have been fighting for minority self-rule in the predominantly Christian nation’s south, and the Abu Sayyaf is the most violent group. The militants have been holding an Australian man abducted in December, as well as a Japanese and a Malaysian.