James R. Keith, US Ambassador to Malaysia

Malaysia has summoned a US diplomat over a travel advisory that warned of terrorist attacks targeting Borneo tourist destinations, a senior official said Monday.

The US embassy in Kuala Lumpur said Friday there were indications that criminal and terrorist groups are planning strikes in isolated areas of eastern Sabah state on Borneo island, including the diving resort of Sipadan.

Malaysian authorities have played down the warning, saying that security measures and intelligence-gathering in the area have been dramatically increased since foreign hostages were snatched in 2000.

Tan Tai Heng, head of the foreign ministry’s information department, said a US embassy official was expected to arrive at the ministry later Monday for discussions over the issue.

“It could be (the US ambassador) or a representative of the US embassy,” he told AFP. The US mission was not immediately able to comment.

Tens of thousands of Westerners visit the state of Sabah annually, attracted by its scenery and world-class diving, especially in the waters off Sipadan, which lies close to the troubled southern Philippines.

Other foreign countries have warned their citizens of the threat of attacks in Sabah — which lies in Malaysia’s half of Borneo which is split with Indonesia — but the US advisory was more specific on the areas targeted.

It identified the destinations of Semporna, Mabul and Sipadan and called on citizens to “please avoid or use extreme caution in connection with any travel in these areas or locations.”

In 2000, the Abu Sayyaf militant group took 21 people hostage including 10 foreigners in Sipadan and took them to their base on Jolo island in the Philippines, holding most of them for several months.

Tourism is a major foreign exchange earner for Malaysia which has seen its export-dependent economy hit hard by the global recession, contracting by a forecast 3.0 percent in 2009. — AFP