The United States has issued a fresh travel warning for most of southern Philippines after a surge of kidnappings there, with some victims being snatched from vessels at sea.
An advisory issued by the State Department on Thursday (Friday in Manila) asked its citizens to defer “non-essential” travel to the Sulu archipelago and the southern tip of the western island of Palawan, and to take “extreme caution” elsewhere in the southern region of Mindanao.
It cited “the high threat of kidnapping of international travelers, increased threat of maritime kidnappings against small boats, and violence linked to insurgency and terrorism.”
Sulu is a stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf, a group of Islamic militants infamous for kidnappings, bombings and beheadings in the South.
The group abducted eight foreigners in the past three years, some from neighboring Malaysia. It continues to hold four Westerners after killing a Malaysian and freeing other hostages reportedly for large ransoms.
In the past month, 14 Indonesians and four Malaysians aboard commercial ships had also been abducted in nearby waters.
Foreign ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are to meet in Jakarta on May 3 to discuss an Indonesian proposal for joint patrols in the area of the recent kidnappings, Indonesian security minister Luhut Panjaitan said also on Thursday.
“We don’t want to see this area become a new Somalia,” he added.
Filipino officials said they could not immediately confirm the ministerial meeting.
Britain also warned on Wednesday of the widening threat of kidnappings in coastal resorts and dive sites in Mindanao, while Canada advised its citizens last week to avoid travel to most of the region.
“Kidnap groups in the Sulu archipelago have sought to expand their reach including by working with affiliates,” the British advisory said.
Joint sea patrols
Last week, Malaysia proposed joint maritime patrols and aerial surveillance with the Philippines and Indonesia in the Sulu Sea because of the rash of kidnappings there.
Defense Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said he will discuss the rise in kidnapping with his Philippine and Indonesian counterparts — Voltaire Gazmin and Ryamizard Ryacudu.
“It is time the same approach is taken to ensure safety in the Sulu Sea as kidnappings are on the rise in the sea, it not only affects Malaysia, but also the neighboring countries,” Hishammuddin added.
On March 26, Abu Sayyaf rebels kidnapped 10 Indonesian crew of the tugboat Brahma 12 off Tawi-Tawi province. On April 2, Abu Sayyaf bandits snatched four Malaysian crew of tugboat MasFive 6 in Semporna. On April 8, the jihadist group released a photo of the Malaysian hostages –Wong Teck Kang, 31, Wong Hung Sing, 34, Wong Teck Chii, 29, and Johnny Lau Jung Hien, 21.
On April 15, the group again attacked, abducting four Indonesian sailors near the Sabah border.