The gunmen arrived hours after sunset, into the darkness of a Philippine island idyll. Moments later, they left with four captives, two of them Canadian, part of a brazen abduction that has underscored the dangers of travel to parts of a country that likes to say, “It’s more fun in the Philippines.”
The unknown assailants – 11 men armed with handguns and M16 assault rifles – came on two boats Monday night to the Holiday Oceanview Marina, a small luxury destination on Samal Island.
Samal is a short boat ride from Mindanao, the southern Philippines island plagued by violence from armed Communist groups and Muslim extremists. For nearly two decades, Abu Sayyaf, an al-Qaeda-linked terror group whose leaders recently pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, has kidnapped dozens of foreign tourists, journalists and locals of other religions, demanding ransoms worth millions of dollars.
Dressed in T-shirts and their faces uncovered, the gunmen at the marina descended on the outermost yacht on each of the two docks, barging in and pulling out two couples.
From one boat came American Steven Tripp and his Japanese wife Kazuko Shibata-Tripp. From the other came Canadian Robert Hall and his Filipina girlfriend, a woman the Associated Press identified as Teresita Flor.
The screams of those under attack brought others running. Some were stopped by the assailants, who pointed guns at them and threatened to shoot.
Others got closer, including Kjartan Sekkingstad, a Norwegian who lived in Vancouver before sailing to Asia, and John Ridsdel, a semi-retired Canadian mining executive.
According to police and witnesses, the two men sought to help the Tripps, who fought off the gunmen and managed to escape, bruised and shaken.
Mr. Ridsdel and Mr. Sekkingstad were then taken captive with Mr. Hall and Ms. Flor, leaving behind a shaken group of yachters who thought they had found paradise on the Island Garden City of Samal.
“They don’t get any typhoons – people are very nice, it’s a nice area,” said one of the foreign yachters who witnessed the scene, but asked not to be identified for fear of being targeted.
Though police said the attack appeared targeted, the yachter said the gunmen simply barged on to the two most accessible yachts.
On Tuesday, the Philippine navy dispatched ships to block the route to Basilan Island, a stronghold maintained by Abu Sayyaf, and police said it was possible the group was involved.
Police also said a resort security guard found a handwritten note that said “Justice for our commander: by NPA.” The New People’s Army is made up of Communist guerrillas and is also considered a terrorist organization.
Superintendent Benedicto Faco, the chief of police on Samal, said it was possible Abu Sayyaf was involved. Superintendent Antonio Rivera, the local chief public information officer, cast doubt on the NPA link, saying the note was found “more than 500 metres away from where the incident happened. I don’t think it has a connection.”
No group has stepped forward to claim responsibility or demand a ransom.
Araceli Ayuste, who owns a nearby resort and serves as an adviser to the Samal City Resort Association, said she suspects “anti-government” forces who “don’t want development” in the area. Developers are quickly turning the once-quiet island into a tourist destination. It was visited by 423,459 people last year, up 25 per cent from the year before, and local leaders have complained about forced evictions.
Police, however, cast doubt on that theory. “As far as I know there were no reports of people discontented with the resort owners,” Supt. Rivera said.
Nicolas Doire, a spokesman for Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa, said they were aware of the kidnapping but declined to comment or release information that might compromise rescue efforts or the safety of Canadian citizens.
The Holiday Oceanview Marina was built by a powerful local family as part of a larger development that includes construction – not yet complete – of a nearby resort subdivision. The marina is the only one in the area that can accept large motor yachts. Ellen Lee Kwen, a member of that family who was married to Mr. Sekkingstad until she died in 2013, had sought to develop the area into a sailing destination.
Mr. Ridsdel, the Canadian mining consultant, works on a part-time basis for Calgary-headquartered TVI Pacific Inc., which has a Philippines-based subsidiary.
Shirley Anthony, a spokeswoman for TVI, told Reuters that the company had launched a search for Mr. Ridsdel. “Right now we are actually in the midst of an intense rescue effort for John, a total manhunt,” Ms. Anthony said. “The military is involved as well.”
She said she did not believe there had yet been any contact with the kidnappers, but that “the people who have abducted him are professional kidnappers for ransom.”
Samal is located a short boat trip from Davao City, a thriving urban centre that is itself considered largely safe, the product in part of a mayor who has all but endorsed vigilante action against criminals. But the Canadian government warns against travel to large parts of the broader region, including Davao del Norte, the province that includes Samal, “due to the serious threat of terrorist attacks and kidnapping.”
In 2001, Abu Sayyaf – its name means “bearer of the sword” – was blamed for a hostage-taking attempt at Pearl Farm Beach Resort, also on Samal Island. But local authorities subsequently suggested that attack, which left two security guards dead, may actually have been an accidental run-in with a gunrunning group that got lost.
The Samal region “is not [the] real area of operations” of Abu Sayyaf, said Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington, who has studied the group.
Other militant groups are more active in the area, Prof. Abuza said, although Abu Sayyaf has also “been in moneymaking mode,” and has recently conducted a spate of kidnappings. The group, formed in 1991, has an estimated 400 fighters and “swings wildly” from attacking security forces to kidnapping for ransom.
“This [region] is a stretch for them,” he added, but the incentive for kidnapping foreigners would be a potentially bigger ransom. “Kidnapping some Basilans, or local Filipinos, doesn’t get headlines and they get very small ransom. Kidnapping a foreigner from a Malaysian or Philippine dive resort gets attention,” he said.
With reports from Reuters and Associated Press, and reporting by Wendy Stueck and Sunny Dhillon in Vancouver, and Affan Chowdhry and Rachelle Younglai in TorontoReport Typo/Error