Authorities in the Philippines have dispatched helicopters, boats and airplanes to search for four people abducted by gunmen from a marina deep in the country's south.
Three of those abducted are foreign travellers – two of them Canadian – and their seizure shortly before midnight Monday has prompted a large-scale response in a country that sees tourism as one of its most important sources of economic growth.
In Davao City, the southern Philippine centre near the Holiday Ocean View Marina where the people were taken, a police hotline has been flooded with hundreds of tips. One reported a sighting of foreigners at a location not far away, but when soldiers were dispatched to look, they found nothing.
The search has also moved into the air, with spotters on military search flights peering down on the waves up to 200 kilometres south of the the Island Garden City of Samal, where the marina is located, in hopes of seeing something.
But nearly 48 hours after they were seized from their boats, Philippine police and military have found no trace of Kjartan Sekkingstad, John Ridsdel, Robert Hall and Teresita Flor, nor of who might have taken them.
"There is no evidence yet as to the whereabouts of the abducted victims," Chief Superintendent of Police Federico Dulay told The Globe and Mail in Davao City.
Even one potential signal – that an attacker spoke English – may have been misleading. "One of the abductors, when he approached one of the victims, asked, 'Who you?' " said Col. Harold Cabreros, who is with the Eastern Mindanao Command, in an interview. "It was just two words, like out of a textbook."
Instead, authorities have dark security camera footage that does not appear to show the two boats used by the attackers, but which is being sent for further analysis in hopes it can reveal more, perhaps even linguistic clues to who the men might be.
What police released instead on Wednesday is a rudimentary pencil sketch of one of the 11 attackers based on the description of Kazuko Shibata-Tripp, who with her husband managed to repel the attackers with shouts and fists.
The sketch shows a man with his hair parted slightly on the left, aged 25 to 30 with a dark complexion, a medium build and 5 foot 2 to 5 foot 3 in height. The man had a "square face" and was wearing dark clothes, according to the police sketch, which labels the case a "kidnapping," although no ransom has been received.
Authorities offered no clue as to who might be responsible, save for casting doubt on the possible involvement of the New People's Army, an armed communist group whose initials were left on a handwritten note found about 500 metres from where the attack took place. Police believe that note may have been a "diversionary tactic," said Chief Supt. Dulay.
The attack would have been carried out by whoever "has the water assets and the arms," he said.
That amounts to a large number of potential groups in the southern Philippines, which has been plagued by decades of violence between guerrilla groups, freedom fighters and Muslim extremists.
One of those armed groups, Moro National Liberation Front, has actually joined the task force to chase down the attackers. TVI Pacific Inc., the Calgary-headquartered company where Mr. Ridsdel previously served as an executive, has said it, too, is mounting a search, although the company declined to provide details.
In an e-mail, company spokeswoman Shirley Anthony said Mr. Ridsdel was on vacation when he was abducted and "was likewise there seeking medical treatment for tuberculosis, pneumonia and a knee injury that inhibits his mobility." The company and those close to Mr. Ridsdel are worried about his medical condition, "as well as the urgency with which he should be treated."
One of the groups most actively involved in the abduction of foreigners over the past two decades has been Abu Sayyaf, Muslim extremists whose stronghold in the province of Sulu is hundreds of kilometres west of Davao.
But military intelligence is now investigating reports that a member of Abu Sayyaf has recently come to the Davao region, Col. Cabreros told The Globe and Mail. "We are checking those reports," he said.
At an afternoon press conference in Davao, police were asked whether the abduction could have been an inside job, or whether it might be tied to the upcoming election season, with a national ballot scheduled for May. Past election years have often brought a surge in kidnappings, which can be a profitable source of funds.
Police said they were looking at all possible motives.
But with little to show, they also sought to shift blame, faulting the Ocean View for having just three security guards on duty Monday night, and saying some private resort owners had made it difficult for authorities to ensure property security.
At the Ocean View Marina, meanwhile, Wednesday brought calm. The boaters docked at the marina have largely stayed, even as management brought in a new security company to protect the grounds. Late in the afternoon, under a hazy sky, guards walked the grounds holding shotguns. Boaters and security guards had been instructed not to let any media enter the grounds.
Police have dispatched an additional 28 officers to Samal Island – up from 90 before – but the military declined to provide details on how many people or aircraft it is using to conduct its search.
Abductions have plagued the southern Philippines for decades, often as a means to raise money for local militants. Military forces have occasionally succeeded in freeing victims, most recently last December when Lorenzo Vinciguerra, a Swiss birdwatcher, managed to run away after soldiers attacked the jungle compound where he was held.
Other rescue attempts have gone badly, such as the 2002 effort to save missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham. Though Ms. Burnham was freed, Mr. Burnham and Ediborah Yap, a nurse, died in the ensuing gunfight.
Myriad terror groups operate in Philippine waters
The militant Islamic group Abu Sayyaf operates in southern Mindanao. With an estimated 400 fighters, it has targeted and killed soldiers, priests, journalists and foreign tourists since forming in 1991. The group, whose name translates as "bearer of the sword," is named after a mujahedeen commander in Afghanistan who fought the Soviets during the 1980s and is currently an influential parliamentarian in Afghanistan. The group has been fighting for control of key islands in the Sulu archipelago in order to establish Islamist rule.
The government in Manila, backed by significant U.S. military aid and equipment, has sought to defeat the group, but Abu Sayyaf continues to carry out attacks and kidnappings. A video in 2014 showed an Abu Sayyaf commander pledging allegiance to the Islamic State.
Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters
The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters is a militant Islamic group fighting for an independent Islamic statehood in central Mindanao. In 2010, its several hundred fighters broke away from a larger group – the 10,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which was advocating greater Muslim autonomy rather than complete independence. The group is behind improvised explosive device attacks against security forces as well as occasional kidnappings, but not kidnappings of foreigners, according to Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington.
New People's Army
The New People's Army is a Maoist guerrilla movement whose aim is to overthrow the Philippine government. It mainly operates extortion rackets targeting politicians, mining companies and small businesses. Attacks carried out by the group have killed soldiers and damaged telecom towers, mining equipment and bridges. It is also behind kidnappings of public officials, miners and police.
The Jemaah Islamiyah militant group, which has links to al-Qaeda, has carried out terrorist attacks in Southeast Asia, including the high-profile Bali bombing that killed more than 200 in 2002. The group has used islands in the southern Philippines as havens. Earlier this year, the Philippine military carried out an operation targeting senior bomb makers belonging to the group.
Abu Sayyaf well-known for targeting foreigners
April 25, 2014: Abu Sayyaf kidnapped two Germans while they were en route from Indonesia to Malaysia. Stefan Viktor Okonek, 71, and his wife, Herike Diesen, 55, were kidnapped off their yacht near Rio Tubbataha, an hour's sail from Palawan Island. They were held captive in a safe house deep in the mountains. Abu Sayyaf demanded the equivalent of $7.1-million. Mr. Okonek and Ms. Diesen were released on Oct. 17, 2014, along with other captives, some of whom had been held since 2010.
April 2, 2014: The group kidnapped Gao Hua Yan, a Chinese woman, while she was on vacation, and Mercelita Dayawam, a Filipino worker, during a raid on Singamata Adventures Reef and Resort, located off the coast of Malaysia's Sabah state. Ms. Gao's family reportedly paid the equivalent of $8.5-million ransom for her release. The group released both victims in Sulu on May 30.
Nov. 15, 2013: Taiwanese tourist Chang An Wei, 58, was holidaying with her husband, Lee Min Hsu, 57, on Pom Pom Island near Sabah's east coast. Abu Sayyaf-linked gunmen raided their villa, killing Mr. Lee before taking Ms. Chang by boat to Jolo, Philippines. Ms. Chang was released Dec. 21, 2013. Officials did not indicate whether a ransom was paid for her release.
July 12, 2011: Two Americans were abducted from a beach house near Basilan Island by more than a dozen armed men. Gerfa Yeatts Lunsmann, her 14-year-old American son, Kevin, and her 19-year-old Filipino nephew, Romnick Jakaria, were taken from a house in Zamboanga City's Tictabon Island by boat. Ms. Lunsmann was released on Oct. 11, 2011, followed shortly by Mr. Jackaria. Kevin remained captive but escaped in December, 2011, and returned safely to the United States.
May 27, 2001: Abu Sayyaf kidnapped American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham along with a dozen other tourists from the Dos Palmas Island Resort on Arrecife Island, east of Palawan. The couple had been celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary. During a rescue effort by the Filipino army, Mr. Burnham was killed during a shootout and Ms. Burnham was wounded, but survived. Filipina Ediborah Yap was also killed. American Guillermo Sobero would later be beheaded by the group.
April 23, 2000: Six armed men stormed a dining hall and kidnapped a German family of three and 18 others vacationing on the Malaysian resort island of Sipadan. In June, 2000, a Filipino evangelist and 12 prayer warriors attempted to mediate their release, but were taken hostage. A German journalist, assigned to cover the hostage story, was also taken on July 2, 2000. All were eventually rescued on Sept. 16, 2000, by the Philippine army.