Kidnappers holding a Chinese tourist who was abducted from a resort on Malaysia's Borneo island have made a phone call to her family in China, a senior security official said yesterday.
He said the gunmen have communicated with the family of Gao Huayun , 29, whom Philippine security forces believe is being held in Jolo island in the southern Philippines.
"They have made telephone contact with her family," said Mohammad Mentek, director-general of the security command in the east of Malaysia's Sabah state.
The Abu Sayyaf, a small band of militants infamous for kidnapping for ransom, are prime suspects in last Wednesday's abduction of Gao and a Filipino resort worker, Marcy Dayawan, 40.
Mentek said authorities believed the hostages were safe. "We hope they will be returned safely to their families as soon as possible," he said. Mentek declined to comment on whether the kidnappers had begun ransom negotiations with the family.
Philippine authorities believe the kidnappers are affiliated with Abu Sayyaf "sub-commander" Murphy Ambang Ladjia, who was involved in a spectacular kidnapping of 21 people from another resort in Sabah - in the north of Borneo island - in 2000.
Twenty of those hostages - many of whom were Europeans or other foreign tourists - were released within five months, reportedly after hefty ransoms were paid. A final Filipino captive was held until 2003.
Mentek said security forces had strengthened their presence, with more sea patrols along the coastal waters of Sabah, which are a big attraction for divers.
"But we are not able to be everywhere all the time since our sea borders with the Philippines are wide and porous," he said.
The Philippine military said yesterday that troops were intensively searching remote southern islands and surrounding waters for the two female hostages, although there have been no sightings of them or other confirmation of their whereabouts.
The search focused on the Basilan, Tawi-Tawi and Sulu islands in the country's far south which were hotbeds of the Abu Sayyaf, said regional military chief Lieutenant General Rustico Guerrero. A "naval task force" was "conducting extensive search and naval blockades [of] suspected sea crafts" while ground troops had also been deployed.
The Abu Sayyaf are believed to be still holding other foreign hostages, including two European bird-watchers abducted in Tawi-Tawi in February 2012.