Capt. Rowena Muyuela, Western Mindanao Command spokesman, told The Anadolu Agency late Sunday, “all efforts are being exhausted in tracking and rescuing the victims.”
Ace Jay Garban, 3, a grandchild of Pitogo Mayor Richard Garban; his 2-year-old younger sister, Zynielle; and bakery worker Ledegie Tomarong, 17, were seized by 10 gunmen during a March 31 failed attempt to kidnap a local businesswoman in Pitogo town, Zamboanga del Sur province.
Police said the gunmen fled aboard three motorized boats, which sped toward the neighboring province of Zamboanga Sibugay.
Fishermen had subsequently found the body of Zynielle Garban in the sea, with police believing she had been strangled as she had bruises around her neck.
Muyuela told AA that the families of the hostages do not have information about their whereabouts, and declined to provide more details in order not to jeopardize ongoing rescue operations.
Sr. Superintendent Sofronio Ecaldre, provincial police director, said in a statement Saturday that five suspects were charged last Monday in relation to the kidnapping.
They were identified as Mahbad Hassan, Alkim Hassan, Jalid Malali, Usman Jelanie and Usman Hassan.
“Two of the five suspects Mahbad and Alkim were arrested a day after 10 gunmen seized the victims but were not immediately announced as investigation is ongoing,” Ecaldre said.
According to police investigations, the suspects had stayed at the residence of Mahbad and pretended to be fresh fish traders while monitoring the movements of their target.
He said that Jelanie had been captured on video footage at the bakery of Chzarenia Kapa Sajulga, the kidnappers’ target who evaded capture by locking herself in a room.
A 60 million Philippine peso ($1.34 million) ransom has been demanded for the release of the hostages, who were seized while playing near the town port and used as human shields to prevent police from pursuing further.
Mayor Garban has appealed for the captives’ release, saying their families are not able to pay the ransom.
Kidnap-for-ransom gangs frequently operate in the Zamboanga peninsula region — Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga Sibugay and Zamboanga City.
The gangs are known to turn their captives over to Abu Sayyaf and negotiate for a ransom that, if paid, is shared with the al-Qaeda-linked group.
The kidnappers use isolated sea-lanes and coastal areas to grab their victims, who are then held captive in isolated Muslim villages in the peninsula.
Since 1991, the Abu Sayyaf — armed with mostly improvised explosive devices, mortars and automatic rifles — has carried out bombings, kidnappings, assassinations and extortion in a self-determined fight for an independent Islamic province in the Philippines.
It is notorious for beheading victims after ransoms have failed to be paid for their release.