By Cecil Morella (AFP) – Feb 1, 2012
MANILA — Two European birdwatchers were abducted Wednesday in the remote southern Philippines where Islamic militants frequently kidnap foreigners to extort ransoms, authorities said.
Gunmen seized the men, a Dutch and a Swiss, on a tiny island that is part of the Tawi-Tawi archipelago and forced them onto a speedboat, said regional police chief Felicisimo Khu.
Ivan Sarenas, a Filipino guide, was also kidnapped but later jumped off the boat and swam to safety, while a second guide had escaped earlier and reported the crime to authorities, Khu said in a written report.
"Ivan Sarenas was able to escape from his abductors by jumping out of the speeding pumpboat," Khu said.
The gunmen were still holding Swiss national Lorenzo Vinciguerra, 47, and Dutchman Ewold Horn, 52, the official added.
Khu said the Philippine Navy mounted a naval blockade of the island to prevent them escaping to the nearby Sulu archipelago, a stronghold of Abu Sayyaf militants who have kidnapped foreigners in the past for ransom.
Sarenas is a member of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines and went to the area in search of the critically-endangered Sulu bleeding-heart pigeon, one of the world's rarest birds, the club's treasurer, Michael Lu, told AFP.
Lu described the suspects as locals.
"They apparently planned to sell them (hostages) to the Abu Sayyaf or the MILF," he said, referring to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a Muslim armed group now in peace talks with the government after a decades-old guerrilla war.
The Dutch foreign ministry refused to confirm the abduction and said it did not know the identity of those kidnapped.
Regional military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Randolph Cabangbang said the military did not yet know who abducted the trio.
But immediate suspicion fell on Islamic militants who are based in the southern Philippines and frequently kidnap foreigners as well as locals in efforts to extort ransoms.
The Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf is the most infamous group based in the south, but other bandits and kidnapping gangs also roam the often lawless area that is close to Malaysian waters.
A rotating force of 600 US troops have been stationed in the southern region of Mindanao for a decade, helping to train local soldiers how to combat the Abu Sayyaf and other Islamic militants.
Wednesday's abductions lifted the number of foreigners kidnapped in the southern Philippines since the beginning of last year to 10.
Five of them -- an Australian, two Malaysian traders, an Indian married to a Filipina and a Japanese man -- are still in captivity. Three abducted Filipinos are also still being held.
The Australian, 53-year-old Warren Rodwell, was kidnapped from his home in in a southern town in December and appeared in a video released to media last month in which he said his abductors were demanding $2 million for his release.
"To the Australian embassy here in the Philippines, this is your constituent appealing for his life, his safety. Please help facilitate," Rodwell said.
In 2000 the Abu Sayyaf kidnapped 21 mostly European tourists from a Malaysian island resort and brought them by boat to the Philippine island of Jolo, not far from Tawi Tawi.
The hostages were ransomed off after many months for millions of dollars, with Libya brokering the deals and facilitating their release.
The following year the Abu Sayyaf kidnapped three Americans along with a group of Filipino tourists from a southwestern Philippine island resort. One of the Americans was beheaded and another was killed during a rescue attempt.
The Abu Sayyaf was founded in the 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network.
It is believed to have only a few hundred militants but is blamed for the country's worst terrorist attacks, including the bombing of a ferry in Manila in 2004 that killed more than 100 people, as well as kidnappings.
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