- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 29, 2016

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) - Indonesia’s foreign ministry said Tuesday that 10 Indonesian nationals are being held hostage in the Philippines after their ship was hijacked in the latest reminder of insecurity plaguing border regions of the two countries.

The ministry said in a statement that the owner of the hijacked tug boat and coal barge has received two telephone calls, purportedly from militant group Abu Sayyaf, demanding a ransom.

It does not know exactly when the incident occurred but said the ship owner was first contacted on Saturday. The ministry’s statement also referred to the hostage takers as pirates.

Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi told a news conference she is working with Indonesian officials and Philippine authorities to coordinate a rescue.

“Our priority is the safety of 10 Indonesian nationals who are now still in the hands of the hostage takers,” she said.

Abu Sayyaf, which is on U.S. and Philippine lists of terrorist organizations, is notorious for bombings, extortions and kidnappings for ransom in the volatile south of the Philippines. It has been weakened by years of U.S.-backed Philippine offensives but remains a security threat.

If confirmed as the work of Abu Sayyaf, the kidnapping would be among its largest number of hostages since 2001.

In the Philippines, army Maj. Gen. Demy Tejares said that troops were trying to verify reports that the Indonesians were brought by their abductors to the southern province of Sulu and that an Abu Sayyaf commander notorious for kidnappings for ransom, Alhabsi Misaya, was involved.

“There is information pointing to Sulu as the destination so we’re monitoring it,” Tejares said of the predominantly Muslim province 590 miles (950 kilometers) south of Manila, where several kidnapping victims are believed to be held in the jungles by Abu Sayyaf militants.

The tug, Brahma 12, and the Anand 12 barge were going from Sungai Putting in Kalimantan, which is the Indonesian part of Borneo island, to Batangas in the southern Philippines.

The Facebook page of the Brahma 12’s captain, Peter Tonsen Barahama, shows smiling photos of him and the crew on the vessel preparing for the voyage and good luck wishes from friends commenting on a port clearance document he posted. The document shows the vessel and its barge left a port in southern Kalimantan on March 15.

A Philippine police report said an unmanned boat marked “Brahma 12” was sighted Saturday by a villager drifting in waters off Languyan town in the southernmost Philippine province of Tawi Tawi, near Sulu, and brought by police to a Languyan wharf.

Indonesia’s foreign ministry believes the barge carrying about 7,000 tons of coal is still under the control of the hostage takers.

Philippine security officials suspect the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf for last year’s abductions of two Canadians, a Norwegian and a Filipino woman from a marina on southern Samal Island. The kidnap victims are believed to be held in the jungles of southern Sulu province.

In a recent video posted on a Facebook account linked to the militants, they threatened to kill the hostages unless a huge ransom was paid by April 8. The Philippine military said the government’s no-ransom policy remains.

Indonesia has been helping the Philippines forge a peace agreement with Filipino Muslim rebels by sending soldiers to join an international oversight group which helps monitor government and rebel adherence to a cease-fire.

___

Gomez reported from Manila, Philippines.

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