Manila: Philippine authorities have found a boat they suspect was used by kidnappers to take a group of mainly Western hostages to an island stronghold of Islamic militants, the military said on Saturday.
The outrigger boat was found on Friday on Jolo, more than 500 kilometres (311 miles) southwest of the Samal island resort where two Canadians, a Norwegian and a Filipina were abducted late Monday, Brigadier-General Alan Arrojado announced.
Jolo is the main base of the Abu Sayyaf, an al Qaeda-linked group that has been blamed for the Asian country`s deadliest terror attacks as well as ransom kidnappings of foreign tourists and Christian missionaries.
"We have eyeballed the seacraft, but not the kidnap victims from Samal," Arrojado, head of a Jolo counter-terrorism task force, told reporters.
Officials would not say if the discovery pointed to possible Abu Sayyaf involvement in the kidnapping of Canadian tourists John Ridsdel, 68, and Robert Hall, 50, as well as Norwegian resort manager Kjartan Sekkingstad and Hall`s Filipina girlfriend.
No group has claimed responsibility for the abductions, the latest in Mindanao, a southern region plagued by decades of Muslim as well as communist insurgencies.
Arrojado said the 25-metre (82-foot) boat suspected of taking the hostages to Jolo was found abandoned at Parang, a coastal town.
It was fitted with two onboard engines, but was taking in water apparently from a breach on its hull, he added.
Regional police spokesman Antonio Rivera told AFP that of all the "threat groups" in the south, those based on Jolo were the ones most skilled in using boats.
However, he added: "We cannot say that they (Abu Sayyaf) are involved at this time."
The authorities earlier said they had received reports the kidnappers had taken their victims to the impoverished Davao Oriental region to the east of Samal.
However Rivera told AFP Saturday "no boat was seen there (Davao Oriental) contrary to what was earlier reported".
Jolo-based Abu Sayyaf and several other renegade Muslim rebel groups have in recent years collaborated in kidnapping foreigners elsewhere in the south, with the victims eventually taken to back Jolo, security analyst Rodolfo Mendoza told a news agency.
"They have done it not only on western Mindanao (including Jolo) but they are now also doing it on the eastern Mindanao side," said Mendoza, president of the Manila think-tank Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism.
He said he had no information on whether this was the case in the Samal kidnapping.