Manila: The kidnappers of an American woman, her son and Filipino nephew in the southern Philippines have telephoned their family by phone demanding a ransom, officials said on Sunday.
At least 14 gunmen seized Philippine-born US citizen Gerfa Yeatts Lunsmann, her 14-year-old son and 19-year-old nephew Tuesday from a relative`s house they were visiting in a village near southern Zamboanga City. They were taken away at gunpoint on board a motor boat, officials said.
Kidnappings for ransom have long been a problem in the impoverished region and are blamed mostly on the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf, a group also notorious for beheadings and bombings.
US-backed offensives have weakened the group, which is blacklisted by Washington as a terrorist organization, but it remains a key security threat.
Asked about the reported ransom, Zamboanga City Mayor Celso Lobregat said without elaborating that U.S. authorities have told Philippine officials the kidnappers called the captives` family and demanded money.
Lobregat declined to disclose other details, including if the kidnappers identified their group or if they allowed the captives to talk to their family.
"There was a call to the family, and a demand was made," Lobregat said.
Regional police commander Felicisimo Khu Jr. said investigators were aware of the ransom demand.
Lunsmann, a 41-year-old veterinarian who lives in Virginia, was born to a Muslim family in a village not far from where she and her son were vacationing with relatives when they were snatched, Khu said.
She was adopted by an American couple as a child and grew up in the United States. She has visited her Philippine home province at least five times before the kidnappings, Khu said.
Khu said authorities suspect the captives were being held in the island province of Basilan across a strait from Zamboanga City by militants under Abu Sayyaf commanders Nurhassan Jamiri and Puruji Indama, who have been blamed for past kidnappings and beheadings.
The captives could also be in nearby Zamboanga Sibugay province, where the actual kidnappers, believed to be former Muslim rebels from another group, are based. The kidnappers reportedly turned over their captives to the Abu Sayyaf, Khu said, citing intelligence.
The last time Americans were held hostage in the southern Philippines was in 2001, when Abu Sayyaf militants kidnapped three Americans and 17 Filipinos from a western Philippine resort then took them by speedboat to Basilan, about 550 miles (880 kilometers) south of Manila.
One of the Americans was beheaded in Basilan. A second American hostage was wounded but rescued while her husband was killed in an army rescue in the Zamboanga Peninsula a year after they were abducted. Since then, hundreds of US troops have been helping train and arm local troops battling the Abu Sayyaf.