Updated: March 7, 2017 3:30 AM ET | Originally published: March 6, 2017 10:35 PM EST

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak has called on North Korea to immediately release Malaysian citizens after Pyongyang banned them from leaving the country.

In a statement published on Tuesday, Najib condemned what he referred to as North Korea’s “abhorrent act, effectively holding our citizens hostage” and called on the country’s leadership to release Malaysians to avoid “further escalation.” According to the Associated Press, there are 11 Malaysians in North Korea including three embassy workers, two U.N. staff and six family members.

Najib also said that he’d instructed police to prevent North Koreans from leaving Malaysia “until we are assured of the safety and security of all Malaysians in North Korea.”

Tuesday’s travel bans are the latest ratcheting of diplomatic tensions in the wake of the killing of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of the North Korean leader, at Kuala Lumpur’s airport on Feb. 13. Speaking hours after Pyongyang’s ban was announced by North Korean state media, Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told AP that North Korea had “manipulated what we call a murder case.”

According to Agence France-Presse, the official Korea Central News Agency said Tuesday morning: “All Malaysian nationals in the DPRK will be temporarily prohibited from leaving the country until the incident that happened in Malaysia is properly solved.”

On Monday, Pyongyang expelled the Malaysian ambassador from the country, reciprocating Malaysia’s order for the North Korean envoy there to leave within 48 hours.

 

Write to Joseph Hincks at joseph.hincks@time.com.

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