Rebels kidnap 4 Indonesian seamen

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines, Reuters

Suspected Muslim guerrillas have seized four Indonesian seamen, including the captain, of a Singaporean-owned tugboat in the southern Philippines, shipping officials said on Tuesday.

Gunmen in speedboats fired a warning shot and then boarded the tugboat on Monday as it towed a barge-load of coal near Basilan Island, 900 km (560 miles) south of Manila, shipping and military officials said.

The Philippine military said it recovered the tugboat, barge and six other crew unharmed early on Tuesday near neighboring Jolo island and had dispatched two MG-520 helicopter gunships to pursue the kidnappers.

Basilan is a stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf Muslim rebels who are linked by Washington to Islamic militant Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network. They are being hunted by Philippine troops with the help of U.S. special forces.

“According to the six Indonesians, there were 11 pirates. They used three speedboats,” southern military commander Major General Ernesto Carolina told reporters in Zamboanga City.

The Abu Sayyaf rebels are fighting for an Islamic state in the south of the mainly Catholic Philippines, but pursue kidnapping as their main activity.

Philippine officials warned that Abu Sayyaf rebels may kidnap more people after two hostages — U.S. missionary Martin Burnham and Filipina nurse Deborah Yap — were killed during a military rescue attempt on June 7.

The rebels’ third hostage, Burnham’s wife, Gracia Burnham, was wounded but rescued in the jungle gunbattle.

Based on information from the released crew the attackers were “believed to be the Abu Sayyaf,” Carlos Digamo, a spokesman for the vessels’ shipping agent, World Mariner Philippines Inc, told Manila’s ANC television.

Besides the tugboat captain, the gunmen also abducted the chief engineer and the first and second officers, coast guard spokesman Lieutenant Armand Balilo said.

The boats’ owner, Singapore-based Labroy Marine, said the tugboat and barge were carrying the coal from Indonesia to the island of Cebu in the central Philippines when they were attacked by gunmen wearing military-style fatigues.

“These armed men in military uniform took four crew and left six behind. They took away radio communications,” Labroy legal officer S. Thillainathan told reporters.

The tugboat kidnapping took place on the same day two U.S. Marines and a Philippine soldier were fired on by suspected Abu Sayyaf guerrillas in the first hostile fire involving American soldiers deployed on Basilan island.

No American or Philippine soldiers were injured in the five-minute gunbattle.

U.S. soldiers had been deployed on Basilan since February to train Filipino soldiers in counter terrorism and help them defeat the Abu Sayyaf.