More than a dozen armed men abducted three people — including a 50-year-old naturalized American woman and her 14-year-old son — from a southern Philippine island near a stronghold of al-Qaida-linked militants before dawn Tuesday, officials said.
Suspicion fell on the notorious terrorist group Abu Sayyaf, which has been blamed for ransom kidnappings, beheadings and bombings in the last two decades, or a Muslim rebel commander whose group has been linked to previous abductions.
The 400-plus Abu Sayyaf militants, who are fighting for an Islamist state in the predominantly Christian nation, are holding three other kidnap victims, including a child, as part of desperate efforts to raise funds, according to the Philippine army.
City police chief Edwin de Ocampo told reporters that the gunmen stormed a beach house on Tictabon island and took three tourists.
De Ocampo identified them as Gerfa Yeatts Lunsmann, 50, her son Kevin Eric, and a nephew, Romnick Jackaria, 19.
"We're still tracking down the gunmen and find out where they took their captives," de Ocampo said.
Last month the United States, United Kingdom and Australia warned their citizens against traveling to restive areas in the southern Philippines, particularly resorts and dive sites in Basilan, Jolo, and Tawi-tawi areas, due to threats of abduction and bomb attacks.
Police Senior Superintendent Edwin de Ocampo said there had been no contact or ransom demand from the abductors, and their identities remain unconfirmed.
The abduction took place near Basilan Island, the birthplace and stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf militants, about 550 miles south of Manila.
The largest Muslim separatist group, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, also has a presence in the area but they have been negotiating with the government amid a cease-fire that has been largely holding in the restive southern Philippines for several years.
Rebels to investigate
However, the military said a separatist Moro commander identified as Waning Abdulsalam may have been responsible. Rebel spokesman Von Al Haq said his group would investigate but that it has no such report and will not tolerate criminal activities.
Police earlier said the woman was a Filipino married to a German national and that the family lives in the U.S. state of Virginia.
But army Col. Buenaventura Pascual, commander of an anti-terrorist task force in Zamboanga, said his men on Tictabon Island saw the U.S. passports of Lunsmann and her son, showing they were American citizens.
Lunsmann was originally from Basilan and her previous name was Jerpa Usman, police and military officials said.
Pascual said the woman's husband is apparently an American citizen of German ancestry. He did not accompany his wife and son, who arrived in the Philippines two weeks ago to visit relatives.
Calls and text messages to the U.S. Embassy were unanswered Tuesday.
"We have deployed troops to track down the victims," Pascual said.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said the local crisis committee was convened and that police and the military were trying to rescue the victims and capture the culprits.
Military spokesman Lt. Col. Randolph Cabangbang said intelligence reports showed the victims may have been brought to Basilan's Tuburuan township.