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The BBC's Jonathan Head
"The heavily armed gunmen arrived shortly after nightfall"
 real 28k

The BBC's Jim Fish
"Ten of the hostages are believed to be foreign tourists"
 real 28k

Philippines Defence Secretary Orlando Mercado:
"It is possible that they have already crossed the border"
 real 28k

Monday, 24 April, 2000, 16:15 GMT 17:15 UK
Gunmen seize tourists in Malaysia
Sipadan island
Sipadan island lies in a protected nature area
Heavily armed masked gunmen have seized more than 20 people, including foreign tourists, on a remote resort island in eastern Malaysia.

Police said the gunmen, armed with rocket launchers and automatic weapons, came ashore after nightfall on Sipadan Island off the northeast coast of Sabah on Sunday.

They took the hostages away by boat and were seen heading toward Filipino waters.


The Malaysian Defence Minister Najib Razak said on Monday that the exact location of the group had been found, but gave no further details.

Police Inspector General Norian Mai told a news conference that the kidnapping "possibly has something to do with Abu Sayyaf", a Muslim separatist group based in the nearby Sulu islands in the Philippines.

"We are seriously considering [a] political motive as the main reason for this hostage taking," he said.

The BBC's John McLean in Manila reports that there is a theory the abductions may be a diversionary tactic on the part of the Abu Sayyaf, who are currently engaged in a battle with the Philippine army.

He say however that there has been little in the way of evidence to support this.

Those abducted include mostly Malaysians but also two French and three German nationals, two Finns, two South Africans, a Lebanese and two Filipinos.

Escape overboard

An American couple, both aged 51, escaped by running into the woods before the hostages boarded the boat, according to Norian Mai.

They have flown to Kuala Lumpur where they told reporters they were "tired" but were otherwise in good health.

It was their first visit to the island.

No shooting took place and the gunmen snatched money and jewellery from the hostages before herding them onto the vessel, he said.

Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said a police and military team had been sent to the area.
Philippine police are attacking Abu Sayyaf's hideout
Philippine police are attacking Abu Sayyaf's hideout

He said that six of the hostage-takers were Filipinos.

Philippines President Joseph Estrada on Monday ordered the air force and the navy to help Malaysia free the hostages.

Sipadan Island lies only about 45 minutes away by boat from the Sulu Archipelago in the Philippines, an area with a long tradition of piracy.

The Philippine army is currently attempting to release about 30 hostages being held on the island of Basilan, in Sulu, by Abu Sayyaf.

Our correspondent says rescuing the Sipadan hostages could be difficult if they end up in this notoriously lawless part of the Philippines.

Diving paradise

Sipadan is a world-renowned diving island off Sabah, the Malaysian side of Borneo island.

Famed diver Jacques Cousteau described it as an "untouched piece of art".
Scuba diver in Sipadan
Sipadan attracts mainly professional divers

Its waters teem with turtles, moray eels, sharks, barracuda, vast schools of gaily coloured tropical fish and a diversity of coral that has been compared to Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

Tourists are also attracted to its white sandy beaches and lush tropical jungle, home to monitor lizards and rare coconut crabs.

Ownership of the island has been disputed in the past with neighbouring Indonesia.

About 400,000 tourists visit Sabah beaches and rain forests every year.

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See also:

24 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Modern pirates: Armed and ruthless
23 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Philippine army 'to crush' rebels
19 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
"Sword of God" at war
19 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Muslim rebels behead two hostages
23 Feb 99 | Asia-Pacific
Philippine dream of Islamic state
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