(Recasts, adds details)
By Al-Zaquan Amer Hamzah and Ben Blanchard
KUALA LUMPUR/BEIJING, April 3 (Reuters) - 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 Borneo island.
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.
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 Cameron-Moore)