(Recasts, adds details)
By Al-Zaquan Amer Hamzah and Ben Blanchard
KUALA LUMPUR/BEIJING, April 3 China demanded
that Malaysia ensures the safety of its nationals on Thursday,
after armed men abducted two women, a Chinese tourist and a
Philippine hotel worker, from a Malaysian diving resort on
The unidentified gunmen kidnapped the two women on Wednesday
night from Singamata island off the coastal town of Semporna in
Malaysia's eastern state of Sabah.
Some Malaysian media reports said the 29-year old tourist
was in her room when the gunmen forced her out into a waiting
boat. Those reports were unclear where the hotel worker, aged
40, was when she was abducted. Other reports said both women
were on a jetty when they were snatched.
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regular
news briefing in Beijing that its consulate in Malaysian Borneo
had demanded "that local police fully put into effect rescue
work on the basis of guaranteeing safety and to ensure the
safety of Chinese tourists there."
"The Chinese foreign ministry will pay close attention to
how the situation develops," he added.
Malaysia's image has been battered in China over the
handling of the investigation into the disappearance of a
Malaysia Airlines flight with 239 people aboard, most
of them Chinese nationals, on March 8.
Relations have become strained between the two countries.
Chinese media has heavily criticised Malaysia's response, and
travel agents there have reported a slump in bookings to the
Southeast Asian nation.
Malaysian media quoted Prime Minister Najib Razak as saying
he did not rule out the possibility that the kidnapping in Sabah
was an attempt to sour ties between China and Malaysia.
"There may be those who are attempting to drive a wedge
between us and China," Malaysia's The Star newspaper quoted
Najib as saying during his visit to Australia, where he was
observing search operations for the airliner.
POPULAR TOURIST SPOT
Malaysian security forces have launched rescue operations
and were checking getaway routes that the kidnappers may have
used, a security official told Reuters.
Maritime enforcement and anti-kidnapping forces in
neighboring Philippines were working with their Malaysian
counterparts to quickly resolve the case, the Philippines
embassy in Kuala Lumpur said.
"The embassy has alerted Philippine police authorities in
nearby areas for possible interdiction, in the event the
perpetrators and their victims were headed their way," it said
in a statement.
Sabah has become a popular tourist destination for Chinese
in recent years, but has faced security problems due to its
proximity to the restive southern Philippines where Muslim
rebels have fought the government for decades and sprouted
multiple armed splinter groups.
Last February, more than 100 armed Filipinos landed by boat
and launched attacks on Malaysian security forces, sparking a
major security crisis in the area close to the Singamata resort.
In November, armed men landed on nearby Pom-Pom island off
Semporna, killing a tourist from Taiwan and abducting his wife.
She was later rescued by Philippine security forces.
Sabah made world headlines in 2000 when Philippines-based,
al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf militant group, known for kidnapping
and beheading hostages, abducted about 20 Malaysian and Western
tourists on Sipadan island - not far from Singamata island. All
but one of the hostages, a Filipino, were eventually released
and rescued by Philippines security forces.
(Additional reporting by Yantoultra Ngui in Kuala Lumpur and;
Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing; Writing by Stuart Grudgings and Niluksi
Koswanage; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Simon