Jakarta says that 10 of its citizens are being held hostage in the Philippines after their vessel was seized in the unstable border region between the neighbours.
The Indonesian Foreign Ministry said the owner of the hijacked tug boat and coal barge has received two telephone calls from people claiming to be representing the militant group Abu Sayyaf and demanding ransom payments.
Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told the media the Indonesian and Philippine governments were coordinating a rescue.
“Our priority is the safety of 10 Indonesian nationals who are now still in the hands of the hostage-takers,” she announced.
Abu Sayyaf, which is on US and Philippine lists of terrorist groups, is blamed for bombing and kidnapping for ransom in the southern Philippines.
If the Abu Sayyaf is responsible, it would be one of its largest hostage seizures since 2001.
One of its leaders, Radullan Sahiron, was added to the US State Department’s terror list this month for his participation in the kidnapping of American tourists in 2001. A US$1 million reward has been offered for his capture.
The Philippine army’s Major General Demy Tejares said troops were trying to verify reports that the captives had been taken to the southern province of Sulu and that Abu Sayyaf commander Alhabsi Misaya, who is blamed for many previous kidnappings, was responsible.
“There is information pointing to Sulu as the destination so we’re monitoring it,” Tejares said. The largely Muslim island is 950km south of Manila, where several other Abu Sayyaf captives are believed to be held.
The Philippines’ military commander General Hernando Iriberri flew to Sulu on Monday to meet the personnel involved in efforts to rescue the Indonesian sailors.
The tugboat, Brahma 12, and the Anand 12 barge were going from Sungai Putting in Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo to Batangas province, south of Manila.
They left southern Kalimantan on March 15.
The Philippine police reported said the unmanned tugboat was found near Sulu.
Jakarta’s Foreign Ministry said the barge, carrying 7,000 tonnes of coal, was probably seized along with the hostages.
Abu Sayyaf was blamed for last year’s abductions of two Canadians, a Norwegian and Filipino woman from a marina on southern coast of the island of Samal. They are also believed to be held in Sulu province.
A Facebook account linked to the militants posted a video threatening to kill the hostages unless a large ransom was paid by April 8. The Philippine military reaffirmed Manila’s no-ransom policy.
Jakarta has been helping Manila forge a peace agreement with its Muslim insurgents by sending troops to join an international unit that helps monitor a ceasefire.