Cruising couple abducted twice in eight years

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Kidnapped by Somali pirates eight years ago, a German cruising couple was abducted again in November, this time by Muslim militants in the southern Philippines who shot, killed and possibly raped the skipper’s wife, a Philippine army spokesman says.

Pirates continue to target commercial vessels and cruising yachts off eastern Africa and in the Philippines despite counter-operations.

On Nov. 6, villagers reported finding the naked and bruised body of 59-year-old Sabine Merz lying beside a shotgun aboard the German-flagged 53-foot sailboat Rockall off Laparan Island in the Sulu Archipelago in the southern Philippines. Delfin Lorenzana, the Philippine defense secretary, confirmed the body was that of Merz, who is married to Jurgen Kantner, 70, according to the International Business Times. Armed Forces spokesman Maj. Filemon Tan Jr. says she may have been sexually assaulted.

Abu Sayyaf, a Philippines-based militant Islamic group, circulated a video online showing Kantner pleading with the German and Philippine governments to raise a $10 million ransom to win his release, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer. “We hold your citizen captive, and it is permitted in Islam to take his blood and life,” Abu Sayyaf spokesperson Muammar Askali says on the video. The video did not set a deadline for payment of the ransom, though Abu Sayyaf has beheaded hostages when ransoms weren’t delivered on time.

That was the outcome for two cruising yachtsmen that Abu Sayyaf kidnapped in 2015. In September that year, 10 of the militants landed in two boats at Holiday Oceanview Marina on the resort island of Samal, off Mindanao, also in the southern Philippines. The armed attackers abducted Canadians John Ridsdel of the catamaran Aziza and Robert Hall of the yacht Renova; Hall’s Filipina companion, Marites Flor; and the marina manager, Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad.

Abu Sayyaf at first demanded a $6.3 million ransom for each hostage and set a deadline of April 25, 2016, for payment. When that deadline came and passed, the kidnappers beheaded Ridsdel, then set a new deadline of June 13 for the others. That deadline passed, as well. The bandits beheaded Hall in June and released Flor soon after and Sekkingstad in September. It was unclear whether any money exchanged hands for Flor’s and Sekkingstad’s freedom.

The Abu Sayyaf militants chanced upon Rockall as Kantner and Merz cruised Tanjong Luuk Pisuk in Sabah, a scenic Malaysian state on the north end of Borneo near the Philippines’ Sulu Archipelago. Askali claimed the kidnappers killed Merz when she resisted and tried to shoot them as the hostages and their abductors made their way on Rockall to Tawi-Tawi at the archipelago’s west end. Tan says the kidnappers have claimed Kantner is alive and in hiding with them in Sulu.

MARAD, the U.S. Maritime Administration, issued an advisory Nov. 22 that U.S.-flagged vessels should “remain vigilant” when transiting the Sulu Sea north of the Sulu Archipelago and the Celebes Sea south of the island chain “in light of recent boardings and kidnappings that have taken place between Sabah, Malaysia, and the southern Philippines.” MARAD cited 13 reported kidnappings in that area through November 2016, and at least nine were linked to Abu Sayyaf. MARAD said that until recently the kidnappings had involved mainly fishing boats and towboats, but since October the group had targeted two commercial ships and a private yacht (Rockall).

The U.S. State Department also has issued a warning to Americans “to avoid all non-essential travel to the Sulu Archipelago and through the southern Sulu Sea, and to exercise extreme caution when traveling to the island of Mindanao, because of continued terrorist threats, insurgent activities and kidnappings.” The State Department cities “an increased threat of maritime kidnappings against small boats in the vicinity of the Sulu Archipelago, and violence linked to insurgency and terrorism there.” It advises against travel to the southern tip of Palawan; the coast of Sabah, Malaysia; and the islands of the Sulu Archipelago to Zamboanga City, Mindanao.

German cruiser Jurgen Kantner late last year was being held hostage after the Philippines-based militant Islamic group Abu Sayyaf boarded his yacht and killed his wife.

The department reports that terrorist, insurgent and criminal gangs regularly conduct kidnappings for ransom in western Mindanao and says the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, an insurgent group, remains active in central Mindanao, the Cotabato City area, and the Maguindanao, North Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat provinces.

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About as likely as lightning striking the same spot twice, Kantner and Merz were abducted by Somali pirates while en route from Egypt to Thailand eight years before their tragic run-in with Abu Sayyaf. Pirates on two powerboats hijacked Rockall off northern Somalia in the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aden, beached the yacht at Laasqoray near the border between Somaliland and Puntland, and hid the couple in the mountainous interior for 52 days until intermediaries delivered a reported $1 million ransom.

Kantner ran out of his diabetes medicine during their captivity, and the abductors subjected the couple to mock executions to deepen their despair and sharpen their cries for help in videos the captors sent back home, Kantner said after the ordeal. In May 2009, eight months after their release from Somali captivity, Kantner and Merz returned to the pirate base, despite the obvious danger, to reclaim and repair their yacht, and continue cruising.

Time magazine, in a May 2016 report on Islamic militants in the predominantly Muslim southern Philippines, said Abu Sayyaf’s “adherence to Islamist doctrine has waxed and waned according to the whims of its leadership” and often has appeared “little more than a criminal enterprise.”

Although other militant groups in the region — the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Moro National Liberation Front — have signed peace deals with the government, one Abu Sayyaf faction has pledged allegiance to ISIS. “It has changed its name to ISIS Philippines and adopted the terrorist group’s black battle flag,” Time reports. The magazine suggests the beheadings may have been to win ISIS support.

The Philippines is waging an aggressive military offensive against Abu Sayyaf and appears to be making headway, but ReCAAP, a Singapore-based information center for ship operators, advised in a Nov. 21 alert that all ships in the Sulu and Celebes seas and eastern Sabah reroute from the area, if possible.

ReCAAP cited “deep concerns” about the risk of crew abductions.

This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue.