Friday, 12 May 2017

PHILIPPINES: Palawan Situation Under Control, Army Ready To Crash Abu Sayyaf

The government is on top of the situation in Palawan.

MalacaƱang gave the assurance yesterday after the US and the United Kingdom warned their citizens against traveling to the province, citing terrorist threats.

The US and the UK have issued travel advisories warning their citizens about supposed plans by terrorists to kidnap foreigners in Palawan, including in the capital Puerto Princesa City and areas surrounding the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park.

The warnings came after the US, UK and several other foreign governments cautioned their citizens about kidnapping threats in Bohol, the site of a clash that left five Abu Sayyaf militants and four government troopers dead last month.

Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said the military and police are working closely to thwart any terrorist activity in Palawan, a known tourist site.

A small but brutal group of Islamist extremists are plotting to kidnap visitors to Palawan island, a top tourist draw in central Philippines, a month after a foiled attempt at another tourism hot spot.

A travel advisory from the United States embassy on Tuesday said there is "credible information" that the Abu Sayyaf, which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, "may be planning to conduct kidnapping operations targeting foreign nationals in the areas of Palawan province".

The embassy identified two likely targets - the capital city of Puerto Princesa and a World Heritage-listed underground river - which attract more than a million tourists each year.

“Public safety is everyone’s concern. We assure everyone that the government is on top of the situation and authorities, particularly those in the Western Command which covers the province of Palawan, are on heightened alert to prevent any untoward incidents,” Abella said.

Citing the US advisory, the British embassy also advised Britons to "carefully consider travel plans and exercise heightened vigilance in these areas".

“All units and assets are being utilized to ensure maximum security to deny any terrorist group’s entry and access in the high seas and coastal areas,” he added.

Abella said the Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command, the Philippine Coast Guard, the Philippine National Police and the local government of Palawan “are in close coordination in enforcing law and order.”

“We urge everyone’s cooperation, including residents and tourists, to be mindful and immediately report to law enforcement units any questionable individual or activity in the areas,” Abella said.

Puerto Princesa is about 400km north-west of the Abu Sayyaf's strongholds in Sulu province.

Security officials yesterday acknowledged these reports, but said they had not monitored any "significant" or "specific" threat.

Lieutenant-General Raul del Rosario, head of the military's Western Command, told reporters there were reports the Abu Sayyaf was targeting Coron, a resort town in Palawan's northern tip popular for its chalk-white beaches and diving sites, following a failed kidnapping raid last month on Bohol island, farther north of Palawan.

President Duterte has ordered the military to “shoot on sight” Abu Sayyaf bandits, saying the situation is “a problem of security, law and order.”

“My order to the security forces is stalk, shoot them on sight. Kill them, do not waste your bullet, then we take care of them in hospital. Expend your bullet to finish the problem because it is really a problem,” Duterte stressed in a press conference on Wednesday.

“If you encounter them, kill them. Filipinos are in great number. Next year there will be more – there will be about 125 million of us. We can always replenish the supply, do not worry,” he added.

He said military and police outposts in Palawan have been on "heightened alert" since.

The Abu Sayyaf had raided Puerto Princesa before, in 2001, when they seized three Americans and 17 Filipinos from the Dos Palmas resort in Honda Bay. One of the Americans was beheaded, the first foreigner to be executed by the Abu Sayyaf, while another was killed in a military rescue attempt a year later. The third American was freed in the rescue effort.

Mr Allan Carlos, who owns a hotel in Puerto Princesa, told The Straits Times there has been a "high concentration of police and intelligence operations in tourism areas in Palawan" since the Dos Palmas incident. He said resort owners have been lending their own speedboats and planes to help security forces monitor possible entry points for terrorists. Some have even installed their own radar systems, he added.

Security forces foiled last month an attempt by about a dozen Abu Sayyaf militants to kidnap tourists in Bohol.

The US embassy had also issued an advisory at the time, warning Americans against travelling to Bohol and nearby Cebu island.

A team of soldiers and policemen tracked down the militants a day after they arrived at a remote river town in Bohol on three speedboats, and engaged them in a gun battle. Nine militants, three soldiers and one policeman were killed in the clashes, according to the authorities. They said another militant died in police custody.

Among those killed was Abu Sayyaf spokesman Muamar Askali, tagged to several high-profile kidnappings, and Joselito Milloria, the Abu Sayyaf's point man in Bohol.

The Abu Sayyaf was formed by disgruntled Moro Islamic fighters in 1991, with Al-Qaeda funding. However, it did not gain prominence till May 2000, when it attacked a dive resort in Sipadan, Malaysia, taking 21 hostages.

In a bid to stave off a reported plan of Abu Sayyaf bandits to attack one of the country’s prime tourist attractions, hundreds of residents around the Puerto Princesa Underground River have signed up for volunteer patrols to augment security measures put in place by the military and local authorities.

A total of 228 volunteers, mostly boatmen, helpers and barangay officials in communities surrounding the park have signed up for the patrols under military supervision, said Jan Elmer Badilla, a spokesperson of the PPUR management.

“Also, park rangers have been conducting their own patrols to guard the entry points from the sea,” Badilla said.

Tess Austria, chair of the Sabang Sea Ferry Multipurpose Cooperative and one of the volunteers, said she wanted to join the patrols herself.

“We know that community participation is important, just like what happened in Bohol, to prevent terrorist attacks,” she said.

Austria was referring to the role played by community members in supplying information to authorities on the arrival and movement of a group of Abu Sayyaf bandits in Inabanga town in Bohol province last month, which led to clashes with government troops that killed several members of the group.

Reports said the bandits were planning to kidnap tourists in Bohol.

Volunteers have been using their boats, which usually ferried tourists into the national park, for patrols, Badilla said.

The military’s Western Command earlier beefed up security around the park, including the deployment of additional Philippine Marines personnel and the creation of a joint task force among several law enforcement agencies, following the release of a travel advisory by the United States Embassy warning of a possible kidnapping attack by the Abu Sayyaf on tourists visiting the Underground River.

Senior Supt. Ronnie Francis Cariaga, regional police director of Mimaropa (Mindoro, Marinduque, Romblon, Palawan), inspected the Sabang wharf on Wednesday night and met with local officials to discuss security measures here.

Visits to the Underground River had begun to dip, and travel agents are bracing for a long-term negative impact of the travel restrictions.

“Yesterday (Wednesday) we were still fully booked, save for the cancellation of the scheduled trip of [Philippine Military Academy] cadets, and today (Thursday) there were a few cancellations,” Badilla said.

“Although we are doing our best to prevent this crisis from worsening, we are expecting that tourist arrivals will be affected. Worse, we will have an earlier lean season. We can just take advantage of this time to conduct training and seminars for the park staff,” he added.