KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Suspected Filipino insurgents seized a Chinese tourist and a hotel receptionist from a dive resort in eastern Malaysia and then fled in a speed boat, Malaysian and Philippine officials said Thursday.
The kidnapping late Wednesday underscored the persistent security threats in Sabah state, a popular tourist destination a short boat ride from the southern Philippines, which has long been home to a dangerous mix of Muslim militants and kidnap gangs.
Six men armed with pistols raided the Singamata Reef Resort, according to a police report. It said the Chinese victim was a 28-year-old woman from Shanghai, while the receptionist was a 40-year-old female Philippine citizen.
The Singamata is a resort popular with Chinese tourists in the Semporna district of the state, which is on the Malaysian side of Borneo Island. The resort has cottages and restaurants on stilts over the water, making it hard to protect from seaborne attackers.
A receptionist at the hotel declined to comment, as did police in the district.
Officials said the attackers came and left on a wooden speed boat.
The attackers were believed to be from the Abu Sayyaf, a militant Philippine Muslim group that has carried out seaborne kidnappings for ransom in the region before, said a Philippine intelligence official who didn't give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Philippine maritime security units and anti-kidnapping operatives were working with Malaysian authorities to achieve a "speedy resolution of the case," the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
At a regularly scheduled briefing Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China's consulate in Kuching city mobilized staff to deal with the kidnapping and urged local authorities to ensure the safety of Chinese citizens.
China's ties with Malaysia have come under stress recently because of anger among Chinese over the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner, which was carrying 153 Chinese. The plane has yet to be found.
Last November, suspected Abu Sayyaf militants killed a Taiwanese tourist and kidnapped his wife from a resort in the Semporna area. The woman was released a month later in the southern Philippines. Authorities didn't say whether a ransom was paid. Such deals are normally not immediately disclosed to the media, if at all.
The Abu Sayyaf had tenuous historical links to international militant networks, including al-Qaida, but a U.S.-assisted Philippine military crackdown on the group's heartland in Sulu province in the southern Philippines has weakened it considerably in recent years. The group has about 300 fighters and is more focused on ransom kidnappings than on the global jihadi cause.
Militants are holding more than a dozen captives, including two European bird watchers who were seized from the Philippines' Tawi-Tawi province in 2012.
In 2000, Abu Sayyaf gunmen crossed the porous maritime border with Malaysia in speedboats and snatched 21 European tourists and Malaysian and Filipino workers from Malaysia's Sipadan diving resort and brought them to the southern Philippines, where they eventually were released in exchange for large ransom payments. Malaysian authorities worried that the kidnappings tarnished the country's image as a tourist destination, and have beefed up security and patrols along the sea border.
The U.S. State Department advises its citizens not to travel to eastern Sabah because of the risk of kidnap.
With more than 100 million Chinese traveling overseas last year, China's diplomats have been called on to deal with an increasing number of emergencies, both big and small. Foreign Minister Wang Yi said last month that protecting Chinese citizens abroad is now a top priority for his ministry.
Prior to the kidnapping, China had issued no warning to its citizens about visiting Sabah.
On Thursday, the consulate in Kuching posted a warning about the security situation in the region.
Gomez reported from Manila, Philippines. Associated Press writers Chris Brummitt in Kuala Lumpur and Chris Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.