“I RECEIVED info. Haji X went to Sulu to fetch the 4 KVs, expected they return to Sandakan tomorrow 9am.”
My heart skipped a beat when I received a message on KVs (kidnap victims) from my source in Jolo island in Sulu province, southern Philippines. My source’s intel is usually A2 (source: reliable, information: probably true).
“In five minutes, I’m meeting an intel source. I’ll ask about the four KVs,” I replied to my source in Jolo.
“Sir, I think the four Sarawakian hostages have been released and they will arrive in Sandakan tomorrow morning,” I told my colleague Muguntan Vanar, The Star’s Sabah chief correspondent.
It was about 9.50pm on Tuesday. We were at Anak Mami restaurant along Lintas highway in Kota Kinabalu to meet an intel source.
“Do we break the story now? Or wait for confirmation?” I asked Muguntan.
“We get confirmation first,” he said.
Muguntan messaged several contacts. Many read his WhatsApp messages but didn’t respond.
“The information must be true,” he half joked. “They read but did not reply.”
(On April 1, eight Filipino gunmen in a speedboat boarded a Malaysian registered tugboat, MV Masfive 6, sailing in international waters off Sabah’s Pulau Ligitan.
The Abu Sayyaf-linked gunmen abducted brothers Wong Teck Kang, 31, and Wong Teck Chii, 29, their cousin, Johnny Lau Jung Hien, 21, and Wong Hung Sing, 34. They released the foreign crewmembers – three Myanmar and two Indonesians.)
About five minutes later, my intel source arrived at Anak Mami restaurant. He was not aware of any release.
At 8.11am the next day, Muguntan called to say it was confirmed that the four from Sibu have been released. And The Star Online broke the news.
At 10.44am, Andy Chua, my colleague in Sibu, messaged in the Sarawak Bureau WhatsApp group: “According to family members, no hostages were released.”
My heart skipped a beat again.
“Oops,” I told myself, “don’t tell me our scoop is wrong. If it is, there goes our credibility.” (It is a credibility established since we covered the Sipadan kidnappings in 2000.)
“Ok, Andy. We wait,” I replied. “Sometimes police tell the family not to reveal that the hostage has been released.”
For example, I told the group, when a previous hostage was released, my colleagues and I called his wife to get confirmation.
“Kalau betul saya punya laki sudah dibebaskan, saya betul betul gembira dan saya akan beritahu kau. Tapi saya sumpah tiada berita yang dia dibebaskan (If it were really true that my husband has been released, I would really be happy and I would tell you that he was released. But I swear that there is no news that he was released),” she told me.
I was taken aback that she would lie, as I had met and spoken to her over the phone several times.
In actual fact, our source had told us that she was with her husband in a hotel room in Sandakan. A few hours later, the police confirmed The Star Online news report that her husband was freed.
It was a waiting game on Wednesday to get official confirmation that the four Sarawakian hostages were freed.
After lunchtime, Philippines security forces confirmed that the Malaysians were freed. In the evening, I found that it rather strange that there was no word from the police on the release.
At 4.46pm, I tweeted: “It is rather curious that Sarawakian hostages released and yet no confirmation by Malaysian cops. I guess ...”
That night, a Chinese newspaper quoted deputy Inspector-General of Police Datuk Seri Noor Rashid Ibrahim as saying the four were freed.
On Thursday, in a press conference, Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar said the four were released and brought back by a Police Special Forces team in the wee hours of Wednesday.
I checked with a Filipino intel source in Zamboanga City, about a three-hour ferry ride from Jolo island, to get more information on the release.
He said Filipino emissaries and the four Sarawakians left Jolo island at around 11pm on Tuesday. In a speedboat, they headed to an island close to Malaysian waters.
They stayed on the island as there was a curfew on the east coast of Sabah.
And at the break of dawn, they left the island and landed in Sandakan town around 6am.
There is talk in Jolo that about 140 million pesos (about RM12mil, give or take, at the black market exchange rate) was paid for room and board for the hostages. However, Malaysian authorities have denied such payment.
“It was reported that the price for the 10 Indonesians was 50 million pesos and for the four Indonesians 15 million pesos,” my Filipino intel contact said, referring to the two groups of kidnapped Indonesians released after ransom was paid.
(On March 26, 10 Indonesian sailors were abducted off the southern Philippines as their tugboat pulled a barge. And on April 15, four Indonesian sailors were kidnapped on the high seas off the east coast of Sabah.)
After the release of the Malaysians, there are about half a dozen foreign hostages still in Jolo, including a Canadian and a Norwegian abducted in Davao, Philippines in Sept 2015. The Abu Sayyaf has beheaded two foreign hostages – Canadian John Ridsdel and Sarawakian Bernard Then – separately.
The Filipino intel officer warned that there will be rampant kidnappings.
“Ramadan is the best time. There’s a lull,” he said. “They’ll target Malaysian fishing boats and tug boats that go to international waters to fish.”
The cage in Jolo is nearly empty. It needs to be filled.
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