Why kidnap sea gypsies?

KOTA KINABALU: Abu Sayyaf-linked gunmen have snatched 10 fishermen, the second highest number of hostages in nearly two decades since the 2000 Sipadan kidnapping of 21 Malaysians and foreigners.

However, security forces are puzzled over the latest kidnapping as the victims are mainly sea gypsies who carry little or no “monetary value”, in terms of ransom.

Sources said they were still trying to establish the motive of these gunmen in military fatigues who took the mostly undocumented people who had settled on islands along the sea border, including the Semporna area.

The sources said the gunmen went through the identity documents – mainly Lepa Lepa card – held by the sea gypsies.

(Lepa Lepa is a signed letter from the local village chief or native court chief to confirm that the holder is a sea gypsy that gives them some kind of “permission” to stay at sea.)

The gunmen took 10 of the 16 fishermen from two boats and are believed to be headed towards the Abu Sayyaf stronghold of Jolo following the 2.20am incident yesterday.

“We are not sure why they took them, they are not of any value in terms of ransom,” a source said, adding that the Lepa Lepa letter or card often used by the sea gypsies is not recognised by the authorities who regard them as stateless or illegal immigrants.

Regional intelligence sources suspect the gunmen are linked to notorious Abu Sayyaf sub commander Salip Mura, and that he is behind the kidnapping.

Salip has been stalking Sabah’s sea border for months in search of “value targets”, but the high presence of Malaysian security forces has forced him and his group to target fishing boats.

The sources could not establish why the gunmen wanted the sea gypsies as hostages and believe that it could be they just wanted to make a bid after stalking for the last six months along the border.

Deputy Inspector-General of Police Datuk Mazlan Mansor confirmed that the kidnapping occurred within Malaysian waters.

He said initial investigations revealed that the kidnapping occurred inside the area under curfew near Felda Sahabat.

“We want to find out why the victims were inside the curfew area at that time,” he told a press conference after the presentation of police vehicles by Malaysian Resources Corporation Bhd (MRCB) yesterday.

“So far we have not received any call for ransom from the kidnappers,” said Mazlan.

Sabah Police Commissioner Datuk Omar Mammah said they were investigating the background and documents of the hostages, aged 17 to 60 years, as well as those who were not taken.

“We are checking their documents,” he said when contacted.

He said the 10 gunmen in two speedboats came alongside the fishing boats before taking the hostages at gunpoint in the waters off Felda Sahabat 9, Lahad Datu, which straddles the Philippine Tawi Tawi chain of islands. They are believed to have fled towards Sitangkai Island, which is about 15 minutes by speedboat from Sabah’s waters.

The remaining six fishermen were rescued by the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) and taken to the mainland for questioning.

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