Conflicting figures over number of kidnap victims frustrate security forces

Esscom commander Hazani Ghazali says there will be no effort to bring home the rescued sea gypsies from southern Philippines as technically they are stateless.

KOTA KINABALU: Security forces are unsure how many sea gypsies were taken in Thursday’s kidnapping in Sabah waters, with conflicting statements from their Philippine counterparts as well as those brought in for questioning over the incident.

Eastern Sabah Security Command commander Hazani Ghazali said Philippine forces had communicated to Esscom that no one else is being held hostage following the rescue of nine fishermen yesterday.

He said, however, this was inconsistent with an earlier report they received claiming 10 foreign fishermen — all believed to be from the nomadic community of seafarers known as Bajau Laut or sea gypsies — were abducted by gunmen off Lahad Datu.

They were reported to have been taken far from the shore, near the international border, off Felda Sahabat in Lahad Datu, at 2am.

To add to the confusion, some of those questioned alleged 11 people were actually taken, he added.

“So we are not sure now how many were actually taken,” Hazani said when contacted today.

He said, according to a statement from a witness, one of the two fishing vessels with 10 people onboard had broken down before drifting into international waters.

The skipper then radioed for help, he added.

He said the second vessel, which was carrying six people, answered the distress call and attempted to pull the boat back into Malaysian waters when two speedboats carrying the kidnappers approached them.

“The kidnappers then had allegedly demanded to see their personal documents and took those holding the Lepa-Lepa cards,” he said.

These cards, purportedly signed and issued by village chiefs, are a form of recognition for their existence, allowing them to live at sea in Malaysian waters.

They are not legal identification documents as they are not recognised by the authorities.

Hazani said there will be no effort to bring home the rescued sea gypsies as technically they are stateless and they are widely regarded as having originated from the Philippines.

“They were here illegally so those who wish to return to Sabah to work or for any purpose must come in legally,” he said, adding they were unsure of the identities of those kidnapped as they had no valid personal documents.

The employers have to use proper papers and permits if they wish to bring them back to work in Sabah, he added.

The Bajau Laut are a sub-group of the Sama-Bajau people, who traditionally hail from the many islands of the Sulu Archipelago in the Philippines.

Most of them are stateless and live at sea, on boats or islands, off Lahad Datu and Semporna.