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The BBC's John McLean in Manila
"The authorities had suspected the Abu Sayyaf was involved"
 real 28k

Tuesday, 25 April, 2000, 11:17 GMT 12:17 UK
Malaysian kidnap 'puzzle'
Abu Ahmad
Abu Ahmad (left) spokesman for Abu Sayyaf
Muslim separatists in the southern Philippines have cast doubt on their own claims of responsibility for kidnapping 20 people on Sunday.

A man who identified himself as Abu Ahmad, the spokesman for the Abu Sayyaf separatist group said in a radio interview on Tuesday: "I'm not saying that we are the ones ... I'm also not saying we are not the ones"

"Let's give the government a puzzle," he said.

The hostages, some of who are foreigners, were abducted by boat from the Malaysian resort island of Sipadan.

Their fate is unknown and no demands have been made.

In an earlier interview a man who also claimed to be Abu Ahmad said that his group was responsible.

"Our group is behind the abduction of the foreigners and there are still a lot of surprises for the government if they won't listen to us," he said.

No communications

Philippines officials are treating the statements with suspicion, saying they could be mere propaganda.

Piracy and kidnapping are common in the area.

The Philippine Defence Secretary, Orlando Mercado, said on Monday the kidnappers might belong to Abu Sayyaf, which is fighting for an independent state in the southern part of the Philippines, a mostly Catholic country.

The guerrillas are already holding 27 Filipino hostages, mostly schoolchildren, on Basilan island, some 900 km (560 miles) south of Manila, where government troops have launched an assault on an the Abu Sayyaf camp.

Fishermen questioned

Malaysian authorities said they could not confirm that Abu Sayyaf rebels were behind the Sipadan kidnappings.

"We've got no communications from the secessionist groups so far. We cannot confirm that," the chief of police in Malaysia's Sabah state, Mamat Talib, said.

We flew over about 30 islands ... as low as 700 feet above the water, but we were not able to locate them

Navy pilot Edgar Andres
But he acknowledged that Muslim rebels could have links to locals.

"We have workers from the Philippines here. It is only natural that they have relationships with workers here."

Five people in Sabah are being questioned, according to the authorities. But the state chief of police would not elaborate on the nationality of the arrested people.

He said it was possible that those arrested were connected to the Filipino fishing community along the eastern coastline of Sabah.

The Philippines air force and navy are cooperating with Malaysian security forces in the search for the hostages.

A three-hour search flight on Tuesday failed to reveal the whereabouts of two boats the kidnappers are said to have used.

"We flew over about 30 islands, sometimes as low as 700 feet above the water, but we were not able to locate them," Navy pilot Lieutenant Edgar Andres said.

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See also:

25 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Philippines separatists' kidnap claim
23 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Philippine army 'to crush' rebels
19 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
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19 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Muslim rebels behead two hostages
23 Feb 99 | Asia-Pacific
Philippine dream of Islamic state
24 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Gunmen seize tourists in Malaysia
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