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No Sabah abductions after Dec 8 ambush

Since a Dec 8 shoot-out between police and would-be kidnappers last year, there have been no abductions reported in the notorious seas off Sabah's eastern coast in a surprisingly quiet six months.

It was, in fact, the first time Malaysian security forces had engaged Filipino gunmen since the Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) was set up in 2013 to reverse a spiral into anarchy along the porous 1,700km coastline and the waters facing the Philippines.

Esscom commander Wan Abdul Bari Wan Abdul Khalid believes the killing of five and the capture of two have given kidnap-for-ransom (KFR) groups operating in Malaysian waters pause.

"We showed them we mean business," he told The Straits Times.

The progress did not come easily. Mr Wan Bari revealed that Esscom worked with local fishermen to identify patterns of attack by the gunmen and spent 72 days out at sea before the successful ambush.

But it has been worth the effort so far, as last year had been a record year for kidnappings.

Such incidents increased after the shocking 2013 invasion by Sulu royalists from the Philippines asserting their claim over Sabah.

In 2014, there were four abductions and, the next year, gunmen from the Abu Sayyaf militant group were even bold enough to go ashore to a Sandakan restaurant and grabbed two people, one of whom was later beheaded.

Last year, there were 10 cases, eight of which involved fishing vessels.

As Esscom stepped up patrols around "static targets" such as resorts and fish farms, and imposed a night curfew, KFR groups began targeting fishermen who still had permits to be at sea in the dark.

The December ambush was the culmination of a concerted effort by Malaysian enforcers and the Filipino counterparts.

In November, Esscom released a list of 23 "most wanted", and Manila issued warrants for six of the men.

Media reports said those eliminated last year included the notorious Maktadil brothers linked to the Abu Sayyaf.

"More than 65 per cent of those involved have been eliminated. It will take some time before they come back because now they are more cautious," Mr Wan Bari said.

"We will see the changes in the trend. Whatever we do will be intelligence-led."

He also revealed that Esscom plans to unveil another list by the end of the month, as intelligence has been gathered on new suspects.

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