The inside story behind the Pom Pom kidnapping

The General Operations Force standing guard after the kidnapping incident.

SEMPORNA: The cage was empty. They needed a commodity for money. The timing was right on a full moon night.

he tides were high and the gunmen struck at Pulau Pom Pom, off Semporna in the east coast of Sabah on Nov 15.

This is how a former intelligence officer tells on why the Taiwanese couple Hsu Li Min, 57, and Chang An Wei Chang, 58, became victims of a group of Filipino gunmen from southern Philippines.

The kidnap–for-ransom group had no valuable commodity in hand since August, when two victims, Tung Wei Jei and Tung Wee Wei, snatched from a Tambisan bird's nest off Lahad Datu in November last year, became worthless.

Wee Wei, 34, died in captivity while his cousin Wei Jei, 26, escaped during a skirmish between the gunmen and the Philippines military in Jolo island.

The gunmen could have been upset as they received no money for "board and lodging" from the two cousins' kidnapping compared with the 2010 Pulau Sebangkat case, the intelligence officer said.

"They came back to Sabah to fill up their cage," he said.

A huge ransom was paid for the release of two seaweed farm staff kidnapped in Pulau Sebangkat, off Semporna and held in captivity for more than 10 month.

The officer said the kidnap-for-ransom gangs held several other hostages, including foreigners, taken from southern Philippines but none from Sabah. Ransoms collected for victims from across the border were usually much higher than for captives taken from Filipino soil.

Intelligence sources revealed that there would have been some planning and observation of the target area for a couple of weeks with the help of local collaborators or disgruntled resort workers before the strike occurred on Pom Pom Island Resort.

They said that their contacts on both sides of the border have been hearing about possible kidnappings in the east coast of Sabah for more than a month but nothing had happened.

The Nov 15 brightly-lit Friday night, when the tides were high, provided the right timing for the gunmen to strike at Pom Pom Island Resort. Previous kidnappings also occurred during such nights.

Any lapse in security or ground intelligence information on a full moon high tide night opens the Sulu and Celebes seas to any intruder, the officer said.

Extra vigilance will be required on such nights, said the officer, adding: "Like the jungle, the sea is neutral."

He agreed that resorts like in Pom Pom island will remain vulnerable to kidnappings if the operators persist on restricting the security boys from being visible to their guests and patrolling the beach.

What transpired in the Pom Pom Island Resort case is still being pieced together but from various accounts, about eight Filipino gunmen in two speed boats were believed to be involved.

They landed near one of the five stilt-house chalets where the Taiwanese couple was sleeping and gunshots were heard around 1am on Friday, and a resort worker alerted the General Operations Force unit based on the island.

One version was that that the burly Hsu could have put up a fight and one of the gunmen opened fire in the face of danger, killing him with two bullets.

For the gunmen, Hsu and Chang were precious commodities, and worth more alive rather than dead as they will be able to get a higher ransom for two hostages.

It is speculated that if not for the sound of gunfire, the gunmen might have snatched a couple more tourists from the resort.

Once they grabbed Chang, the gunmen sped off towards Pulau Sitangkai into southern Philippines waters where they might have transferred her to another boat before heading to jungle hideouts in Lagunyan area in Tawi-Tawi chain of islands.

If everything went on without a hitch or mishap to the victim and the gunmen, she will eventually end up in the mountainous jungle of Jolo island, the home base of the Abu Sayyaf terror group.

Chang will be kept as a hostage in an area under the control of any Abu Sayyaf commanders or Moro splinter groups when ransom negotiations get underway.

While Taiwan authorities appear to be taking the lead in ransom negotiations directly with the Philippines side, the Malaysian police were focusing on gathering intelligence on the local links and which Filipino group could have pulled of the Pom Pom job.

The ransom negotiation itself could be a long-drawn drama of intrigue and deceit in southern Philippines.

Negotiators who have done ransom deals for Sabah kidnapped victims were also contacting "runners" who could help make the link to the leader of the group holding Chang captive.

If the kidnappers knew Chang's family had money, they will raise the stakes, and could start with several million American dollars, according to negotiators involved in securing the release of past cross-border kidnap victims.

Once a telephone call made by an intermediary is ascertained to be genuine, the race for who among the negotiators can first secure the safe release of the victims begins.

First, the negotiator will get proof from the group that they were holding the victim and it will be done by delivering the latest photo of the victim.

"Later, they will arrange for a secure telephone call for the victim to talk to the family to ensure she was alive," said a negotiator.

When that's done, the tedious task of negotiations starts on the amount of ransom to be paid. This could take days, weeks and months of a ding-dong battle, before the ransom agreed upon reaches the hands of the gunmen holding the victim.

If the negotiations drag on, Chang's captors will do everything to keep her alive as they will not want a dead commodity.

She will be moved from one jungle hideout to another hideout and from islands to islands if a military pursuit occurs.

Given her age and her health condition in a harsh terrain where language will be barrier, the worry is whether she can survive the ordeal.

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