Police believe that the abductees were taken to the island of Sitangkai in Tawi-Tawi, a province in the southern Philippines which is known as an Abu Sayyaf stronghold. Previous Abu Sayyaf abductions have followed a similar pattern.
According to police accounts, gunmen in two speedboats approached two separate fishing vessels at about 0200 hours Tuesday off the coast of Lahad Datu, Sabah. The attackers abducted ten crewmembers and left six behind. Authorities in Sabah say that they have not yet received a ransom request.
Malaysia has enacted a security curfew in the waters off Lahad Datu, part of a range of measures it has taken to defeat the persistent threat of piracy. Given the time of the attack, it would appear that the victims were navigating the area outside of permitted hours.
The victims are "sea gipsies," according to Malaysian authorities - a term used to refer to the Sama-Bajau ethnic group, whose traditional territory straddles the maritime boundaries of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. They face discrimination in the southern Philippines, where they have been targeted by Abu Sayyaf, and are not recognized as citizens in Malaysia.
Datuk Omar Mammah, the police commissioner for Sabah, told The Borneo Post that the victims were in possession of a "lepa-lepa letter" - a form of a residency permit for Sama-Bajau - that suggested that they had been in Malaysia for decades. Sabah's chief minister, Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal, said that the kidnapping did not involve Malaysians, only "fishermen from our neighbouring country."