KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Gunmen have demanded a ransom of 500 million pesos ($11.3 million) for the release of a Chinese tourist abducted last week from a Malaysian resort off Borneo island, a Malaysian minister said Thursday.
The gunmen, believed to be Abu Sayyaf militants, kidnapped a 28-year-old Shanghai woman and a 40-year-old Filipino woman from the Singamata Reef Resort in the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah on April 2.
Philippines authorities believe the women were taken to the island township of Simunul in Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines' southernmost province. Sabah, a popular tourist destination, is just a short boat ride from the southern Philippines, home to Muslim militants and kidnap gangs.
"The kidnapper, or kidnappers for that matter, have asked about 500 million pesos ... worth of ransom" for the Chinese tourist, Malaysian Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamid said on private television station TV3.
"We have sent our team, the police and the negotiators ... to negotiate about the reduction of ransoms," he said. No ransom was asked for the Filipino woman, who was working at the resort, he said.
Zahid was not able to be reached for further comment. An aide confirmed Zahid's comments and said investigations were ongoing.
Mohammad Mentek, a senior Sabah security official, said the kidnappers have made telephone contact with the family of Gao Hua Yuan, the Chinese kidnap victim, but declined to say whether a ransom demand has been made.
A Philippine security official who monitors Muslim militant activities in the southern Philippines confirmed that a ransom demand was made.
Zahid's aide and the Philippine security official both spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
In carrying out the kidnapping, seven men armed with rifles, four of them masked, arrived at the resort on a speedboat and fled with the two women, according to Malaysian police.
China's ties with Malaysia have come under stress recently because of anger among Chinese over the search for a missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner carrying 153 Chinese passengers.
The Abu Sayyaf, a militant Muslim group, has carried out seaborne kidnappings for ransom in the region before. In 2000, Abu Sayyaf gunmen 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.
In November, suspected Abu Sayyaf militants killed a Taiwanese tourist and kidnapped his wife from another Sabah resort. The woman was released a month later in the southern Philippines.
The Abu Sayyaf had links to international militant networks, including al-Qaida, but a U.S.-assisted Philippine military crackdown has weakened it considerably in recent years. The group, which is on the U.S. list of terror groups, has about 300 fighters and is now much more focused on ransom kidnappings than global jihad.