Terror alert up in southern Philippines

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ZAMBOANGA CITY: The United States Department has warned American citizens to avoid travelling in the southern Philippines due to terrorism and strife, and threats of kidnappings.

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It said US citizens should continue to defer unnecessary travel to the region and said over the past nine months, there have been kidnappings and attempted kidnappings of foreigners in Sabah, Malaysia and in the southern Philippine sea by terrorist or insurgent groups.

“US citizens should exercise extreme caution if considering travel in the southern Sulu Sea region between Balabac Island and Palawan, in the Philippines; Sabah, Malaysia; and east to Zamboanga City, Mindanao, in the Philippines.”

“US citizens should continue to exercise extreme caution if travelling to the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines. In 2013, separatist and terrorist groups increased the tempo and scale of their activities and confrontations with Philippine security forces, with increased bombings, attacks on civilians and political leaders, and battles with security forces,” the State Department said.

It also cited attacks by members of the Moro National Liberation Front in the western Mindanao city of Zamboanga in September last year and the threats pose by Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters in central Mindanao.

“In September 2013, elements of the Moro National Liberation Front [MNLF] occupied portions of the city of Zamboanga and engaged in a lengthy battle with security forces which reduced large parts of the city to rubble. The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters [BIFF] remain active in the Cotabato City area, and in the Maguindanao, North Cotabato, and Sultan Kudarat provinces, where the government maintains a state of emergency and a greater police presence,” it said.

The US Embassy in Manila also imposed a strict restriction on all but the most essential travel to Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago, and said its employees must receive special authorization from Embassy security officials to travel to any location in Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago, including urban centers.

The State Department remains concerned about the continuing threat of terrorist actions and violence against American citizens and interests throughout the world. It cautioned Americans that terrorism can occur anywhere and urged its citizens in the Philippines to enroll with the Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program or at the US Embassy in Manila to be able to get most recent security and safety updates.

The United States is the second country in recent days that has alerted its citizens in the Philippines due to terror threats.

Just recently, the United Kingdom has warned its citizens in the Philippines against travelling to the southern region due to threats of terrorism and clashes between security forces and insurgents, and kidnappings.

“The Foreign and Commonwealth Office [FCO] advise against all travel to south-west Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago because of on-going terrorist activity and clashes between the military and insurgent groups. The FCO advice against all but essential travel to the remainder of Mindanao for the same reasons,” it said in an updated advisory.

Britain said there are several terrorist groups operating in the Philippines that continue to pose a threat. It said there is a high threat of terrorism throughout the Philippines and terrorist groups—among them the local Abu Sayyaf and the Indonesian Jemaah Islamiya, including the communist rebel New People’s Army and other associated groups —continue to plan attacks and have the capacity and the intent to carry out attacks at anytime and anywhere in the country.

It said extreme elements within the two main insurgent groups, the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, continue to pose a security threat, including the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters which broke away with the MILF and is responsible for the series of attacks on military targets in Mindanao.

The United Kingdom also cited past against civilian targets in Mindanao—in 2013 attacks have taken place in Cotabato City and Cagayan de Oro and there remains a threat of attacks throughout much of Mindanao—“attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places frequented by foreigners like airports, shopping malls, public transport and places of worship.”

“Be aware of the risk of terrorist attacks to all forms of public transport: road, rail, sea and air. Terrorist groups have threatened to attack passenger ferries and other vessels, particularly those operating from Mindanao. You should avoid using public transport throughout Mindanao,” the British travel advisory further said.

It said there is a threat from kidnapping, particularly in the southern Philippines where kidnapping could occur anywhere, including on coastal and island resorts and on dive boats and sites in the Sulu Sea.

“Foreigners have been targeted in rural, urban and coastal areas in the past. In April 2014, two foreign nationals were kidnapped while yachting in the Sulu Sea. In February 2012, 2 foreign nationals were kidnapped from Pa–rangan in the township of Panglima Sugala in the Tawi-Tawi island province.”

“The long-standing policy of the British government is not to make substantive concessions to hostage takers. The British government considers that paying ransoms and releasing prisoners increases the risk of further hostage taking,” it said.

Britain was referring to Germans Stefan Viktor Okonek, 71, and Herike Diesen, 55, who disappeared recently at sea off Palawan province. Their empty yacht was recovered by Philippine authorities off Palawan in the Sulu Sea.

Two European wildlife photographers—Ewold Horn, 52, from Holland and Lorenzo Vinci–guerre, 47, from Switzerland were kidnapped at the coastal village of Parangan in Panglima Sugala town two years ago.

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