THE PALACE on Thursday assured tourists that the Philippines is “definitely safe” despite travel advisories by foreign governments warning of terrorist activity in the country.
The assurance came as the military announced the release of at least 16 Abu Sayyaf fighters, despite their involvement in heinous crimes, because of the absence of warrants for their arrest.
In a news conference, presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said local and foreign tourists should not worry as security forces were running after the Abu Sayyaf, the terror and kidnap group that has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
The United States, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom have issued warnings against travelling to Central Visayas, particularly Bohol and Cebu, over terror threats.
Last week, government security forces fought members of the Abu Sayyaf in Barangay Napo, Inabanga, Bohol, an island known for white-sand beaches and the “Chocolate Hills.”
Abella was confident the bloody clash would not reduce tourist arrivals in the country.
“The PNP (Philippine National Police) Regional Safety Battalion is also available in Bohol and in other areas. In other words, the administration is looking after security in the area,” he told reporters.
“As far as we can, as far as we have, we have done our due diligence regarding the matter. However, on the whole, the tourists’ interest in the Philippines continues to surge. So it will all even up,” he added.
Abella clarified President Rodrigo Duterte’s latest pronouncement that civilians in Bohol could take up arms to combat the Abu Sayyaf bandits, saying it was merely “dramatics” aimed at beefing up security in the province.
“In a sense, it was a dramatization of making sure that security is raised up in the area,” Abella said, when sought for clarification on the President’s plan to arm civilians following the deadly clash in Bohol.
“That doesn’t mean that every house will be having that. I’m assuming that as part of the security and civil defense, the ante would be pushed up,” he added.
Duterte said on Wednesday he was considering arming civilians against terrorists but had yet to consult local officials.
The President also offered a P1-million bounty for the capture of each Abu Sayyaf bandit who escaped after an encounter with government forces in Inabanga, Bohol last April 11.
Five Abu Sayyaf militants, three soldiers, and a policeman were killed after the clash.
Abella said Duterte’s remark is “something that is to be left to him” but explained that it was part of the Chief Executive’s intention to just “raise security” in the province.
He said there was no official government policy allowing civilians to take up arms to protect themselves against terrorists.
“Let’s put it this way: the President has a way of underlining what he wants to do. It’s not a policy direction. It’s not a policy at this stage. There’s no paper to support that. But what I’m saying, it’s his intention to raise security,” Abella said.
Abu Sayyaf fighters released
The military on Thursday announced the release of at least 16 Abu Sayyaf members who surrendered recently in Basilan and Tawi-Tawi, in the absence of warrants for their arrest.
Eleven of those who were freed – including their leaders Berong Sariol and Ben Sariol – are wanted for piracy and cross-border kidnappings in Sabah, Malaysia, according to the Western Mindanao Command.
They were also involved in the brutal murder of Catholic priest Reynaldo Roda in South Ubian in Tawi-Tawi on January 2008, the April 2014 kidnappings in Sabah of Chinese tourist Gao Hua Yun and Filipina resort worker Marcy Dayawan, as well as that of Mayor Kuyoh Pajiji of Tawi-Tawi’s Sibutu town in June 2003 and Korean ship captain Chul Hong Park and his Filipino crew member Glen Alendajao, also in Tawi-Tawi, last year.
Jasim Dambong, Mujil Dambong, Magelan Langal, Kael Sariol, Nurhamin Sariol, Alhan Sariol, Amnisain Sariol, Akmad Sariol and Benasil Sariol were released after authorities failed to secure warrants for their arrest. The military even gave them financial assistance for the weapons they surrendered.
Abu Sayyaf leaders were arrested by authorities in Tawi-Tawi’s Bongao town in May 2009, but were also freed over the failure of law enforcers to present arrest warrants.
Kuala Lumpur wanted the Sariol group to stand trial in Malaysia for their crimes.
Six militants surrendered recently in Basilan, including Nasser Sagap, who presented himself on April 19 to the 18th Infantry Battalion in Ungkaya Pukan town.
Sagap, 20, also known as Sinbad, claimed to be a follower of Abu Sayyaf leader Puruji Indama and yielded an old Garand rifle.
In September last year, at least 20 alleged militants under Abu Sayyaf sub-leader Katatong Balaman surrendered in Sumisip town in Basilan. Seven more – Sulaiman Kasaran, Marwin Asan Kasaran, Derwin Asan Kasaran, Halid Asan Kasaran, Hadzmin Kuluman Kasaran, Faisal Laudmin Kasaran and Salman Najallon Kasaran – gave up in Basilan, a stronghold of the bandit group. All of them were also freed by the military.
Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez, regional military commander, praised the surrender of the militants. “This only manifests that our troops are already gaining ground with the combat operations launched by the units and the growing support of the local government and the people in Basilan. The Abu Sayyaf bandits are now compelled to leave their bailiwicks as we work closely with the local government and our partners to turn the strongholds of the Abu Sayyaf into a peaceful community,” he said.
“We want to work for peace without the use of arms and prevent bloodshed, and, in this light, we are encouraging other Abu Sayyaf bandits, as Filipinos, to lay down their arms and join the government in working for a peaceful and progressive Mindanao,” he added.
The government has not offered amnesty to the Abu Sayyaf and other groups fighting for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in the restive region.