Filipino security forces arrested a suspected Abu Sayyaf member on Thursday (23 March) believed to be involved in the hijack of a tugboat towing a cargo vessel off Basilan province.

The hijack took place hours after the army successfully rescued two Malaysian sailors kept hostage by the Islamist militant group for eight months in Sulu province.

Elaborating on the latest hijacking incident, Maj. Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr., Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) chief, told the Philippines News Agency that a group of suspected Abu Sayyaf members intercepted the tugboat M/T Tug R9 while it was sailing near Sibago Island off Basilan province on way to General Santos City. The militants took two crew members hostage and fled the scene.

The hijackers were aboard three speed boats, which were also recovered following the arrest of the suspected militant, the police chief added. The arrest was made following a brief firefight in the coast of Barangay Candiis near Mohammad Ajul town. The troops also recovered a firearm from the militant.

The Philippines army identified the two kidnapped tugboat crewmen as the captain and chief engineer of the vessel. They suspect the captives were taken to mainland Basilan.

"Two Filipino crew, the ship's captain and chief engineer, were taken captive," Lieutenant-Commander Alvin Dagalea told reporters and added, "The reports are still sketchy, but we have reasons to believe the Abu Sayyaf are behind the attack."

Ship hijacking
The Philippines army arrested a suspected Abu Sayyaf member believed to be involved in a latest hijacking incident where two Filipino tugboat crewmen were abducted off Basilan province on Thursday, 23 March - File photo Antara Photo Agency/Reuters

Col. Juvymax Uy, Task Force Basilan commander, reportedly said that operations are ongoing to arrest the hijackers. "We will try to push them to the limit in Tuburan and Mohammad Ajul," Uy added, according to ABS-CBN news.

Earlier in the day, Galvez announced the release of Tayudin Anjut, 45, and Abdurahim Bin Sumas, 62, from Abu Sayyaf captivity. They were among five Malaysian tugboat crew members who were kidnapped in July 2016 off Lahad Datu in Malaysia.

The Isis-linked group is known for kidnappings for ransom and is believed to have close to 28 people in captivity.