On Monday night, eight fishermen were shot and killed by pirates in the vicinity of Siromon Island, near Zamboanga City.
According to survivors, armed men in speedboats boarded the fishing boat and ordered the crew to move towards the bow. The attackers opened fire, killing eight and forcing five others into the water. Police photos (not suitable for reproduction) show that the deceased were bound together in a manner indicating execution.
Zamboanga, on the southwestern tip of Mindanao, is in an area plagued by pirate attacks by the Islamist militant group Abu Sayyaf. The violence of Monday's attack, however, differs from recent Abu Sayyaf incidents, which have uniformly involved the kidnapping of crewmembers for ransom. Police suspect extortion or an inter-group rivalry as the motive behind Monday night’s assault.
"We consider this a piracy attack. If these were Islamist militants, they would have been taken captive and held for ransom," said Coast guard spokesman Commander Armand Balilo, speaking to Reuters.
Piracy falls worldwide, but kidnappings rise
Piracy reporting center IMB released its annual report for 2016 on Tuesday, and the top-line news for mariners is good: the number of reported pirate attacks last year fell to 191, the lowest level in almost 20 years. However, the growing trend towards kidnapping is worrisome, and the number of abductions was the highest in a decade. In total, 151 crew were taken hostage aboard and 62 were kidnapped from their vessels last year, up from only 19 kidnappings in 2015. Most of this year's surge in abductions is attributable to the targeting of crew in the Gulf of Guinea and to Abu Sayyaf-related attacks in the Sulu Sea.
If Manila succeeds in its aims, maritime kidnapping numbers in 2017 will be much lower. The Philippine military has orders to destroy Abu Sayyaf on shore within six to twelve months, according to recent statements by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana. On Monday, the secretary hinted at "innovative" plans to stop Abu Sayyaf and to recover two dozen hostages. Only time will tell if his goal is realistic: previous large-scale assaults have not succeeded in dislodging the insurgent group, which will soon enter its 26th year in operation.