MALAYSIAN security forces on Thursday shot dead three heavily-armed Filipino gunmen who had earlier gone on a crime spree in the waters off Lahad Datu in the state of Sabah, local media reported.
The three killed were said to be part of a group of six to eight men believed to be behind a slew of cross-border kidnappings in recent months. They were caught during a late night gun fight with local police that left one policeman injured.
During the standoff, a hostage caught in the fray was freed, while three gunmen were arrested.
The authorities have since launched a search and rescue mission for another abductee who is reportedly missing, while a manhunt is on for another two suspects who managed to escape from the firefight.
According to The Star, it is believed the three gunmen fatally wounded in the shootout were from kidnap-for-ransom groups that have been thriving in the bordering Tawi-Tawi Islands in the Philippines’ restive south.
A report in the New Straits Times quoted Sabah Police Commissioner Abd Rashid Harun as saying that the bandits who were on a robbery and kidnapping spree on Thursday had inadvertently encountered members of the elite General Operation Force’s Battalion 14’s Tiger Platoon.
In a press conference on Friday, Abd Rashid said the men began their crime rounds on a speedboat in the Bakapit Waters of Lahad Datu, where they hijacked a fishing trawler at around 9pm on Thursday.
After looting the trawler, the men abducted one hostage before cruising south to the waters ofd Semporna where they attacked and ransacked another fishing boat and left the crew stranded.
The bandits, he said, struck a third fishing trawler and plucked a second hostage before going after a fourth vessel in complete darkness. Little did the hijackers know then that the final boat had security forces onboard.
“As they drew closer, the Platoon leader saw clearly that one of the kidnappers was holding a long firearm, and another was carrying what looked like a heavy weapon, while a third was laden with chains of bullets around his body,” Abd Rashid was quoted as saying by the New Straits Times.
Shortly after realising that the men on board the fourth boat were policemen, the bandits opened fire in an exchange that lasted several minutes.
After the shootout ended, police found the three dead criminals floating in the water while the other members of the group surrendered. Another one or two suspects had escaped in the dark, police said.
On Wednesday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he told his Indonesian and Malaysian counterparts that their forces can bomb fleeing Philippine militants and their kidnap victims at sea because the hostages “are not supposed to be there.”
Duterte said he told Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo that their forces could enter Philippine waters while pursuing Muslim militants who are fleeing with hostages.
He said he told the leaders that if the militants were about to escape, “bomb them. If they cannot be captured you bomb them. How about the hostages? Eh, bomb them also. They’re not supposed to be there, there is a warning.”
Despite the high-level talks, kidnappings by Philippine Abu Sayyaf militants have continued along the three countries’ sea borders.
Additional reporting by the Associated Press