|Picture of Abu Sayyaf and ISIS flag|
The authorities are investigating whether they belonged to a pro-Islamic State militant group in the southern Philippines.
The four men, aged between 20 and 40, were killed during a shootout about 2am some 9.6 nautical miles from the Lahad Datu shore and about 4.7 nautical miles from the Philippine sea border.
The suspects were using heavy firearms, based on the rounds seized from them.
Sabah Police Commissioner Ramli Din said a team, consisting of members of the Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom), VAT 69 special forces units as well as marine police, detected a boat carrying about five to six men behaving suspiciously.
“The speedboat was heading towards a group of fishing boats. Our boat intercepted them and flashed our blue strobe lights,“ said Ramli during a press conference in Lahad Datu.
“The suspects fired on the team, forcing them to return fire in self-defence.
“Later, the team found two of the men dead in the boat and another two dead in the water with gunshot wounds.”
Ramli said the team was unharmed but a shot had hit the left side of their boat’s bow.
Inspections revealed the suspects had no identification documents and the heavy firearms they used were believed to have been thrown out into the water. Divers have been deployed to look for the heavy firearms.
“We seized an unregistered white pump boat, a pump engine whose number had been erased, a -45 calibre Remington Rand pistol, a 40mm grenade, 21 rounds of 7.62mm and 13 rounds 5.56mm ammunition,” said Ramli.
“Based on these large rounds, we believe the suspects were using heavy firearms which were probably thrown overboard during the shootout.”
According to the police chief, the incident happened inside the Eastern Sabah Security Zone (Esszone), with the nearest island being Malamanuk in Philippine territory, 13.6 nautical miles away.
“So far this year, we have received 33 tip-offs of kidnap-for-ransom plans.
“Thankfully, none of them were carried out,” Ramli said.
“The last information was on May 5 that five to six men were scouting our waters. So it’s possible these men were connected to the info we received.”
On whether the men belonged to notorious groups, such as the Abu Sayyaf from the southern Philippines, which used to be involved in kidnapping, Ramli said police were still investigating.
Some Abu Sayyaf factions are known to have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) terror group.
Experts have also speculated that groups, including those involved in the 2017 Marawi siege, could go back to kidnap-for-ransom activities to finance their activities.
They could also focus on kidnapping foreigners in revenge for the death of Isnilon Hapilon, an Abu Sayyaf leader and IS emir for Southeast Asia, who was killed in Marawi, said analysts.
“We are looking into whether they were pro-IS,” said Ramli when contacted by FMT.