THE United States State Department has renewed a travel advisory urging Americans to avoid parts of the Philippines and Malaysia in light of ongoing terrorist activities targeting travelers in the South Sulu Sea.
The announcement on Tuesday, December 20 replaces a prior warning issued on April 21 in response to kidnappings and other crimes perpetrated by militias based in and around the southern Philippines.
The advisory outlines an area south of Palawan and Zamboanga City and bordered by the northwest coast of Malaysia and the Sulu Archipelago as a hotbed of insurgent violence.
The State Department also recommends “extreme caution” when traveling through western Mindanao, where at least 13 separate abductions have occurred since January.
“There have been no reports of U.S. citizens in Mindanao targeted specifically for their nationality,” the advisory issued by the State Department said. “However, general threats to U.S. citizens and other foreigners throughout Mindanao remain a concern.”
The presence of a number of militant organizations in the region that fund their operations by collecting ransom money continues to pose a considerable threat to the safety of foreigners, according to the advisory.
Several other countries, including Germany and Canada, have also officially recommended that their citizens avoid traveling near the South Sulu Sea.
Recently, representatives of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) claimed responsibility for kidnapping Jurgen Kantner, a German national who had been sailing on a yacht off the coast of Sabah, Malaysia. His boat was discovered by residents of Laparan Island in Mindanao on Sunday, November 6. The body of a woman matching the description of Kantner’s travel companion, Sabina Wetch, was found on board, according to CNN and other sources.
In April, kidnappers beheaded John Ridsdel, the second of two Canadians killed by the ASG following their abduction from a Samal Island resort. He and fellow Canadian, Robert Hall, along with Marites Flor of the Philippines and Kjartan Sekkingstad of Norway, were taken hostage on Monday, September 21, 2015.
Hall was executed in June of last year. Flor was released several days after Ridsdel’s death as a gesture of goodwill to the administration of then recently elected Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, according to the Philstar. After being held captive for nearly a year, Sekkingstad was freed on Saturday, September 17.
Philippine authorities had initially suggested that as much as P100 million had been raised by private sources to pay for Sekkingstad’s freedom. However, President Rodrigo Duterte told reporters during a press conference on Thursday, August 25, that the Philippine government had paid P50 million to the ASG ahead of the Norwegian’s release.
The ASG has collected more than P350 million ($7 million) in ransom this year, according to confidential documents cited by the Associated Press in October. The largest single payment happened in January for the release of 14 sailors who had been kidnapped while transporting cargo through the South Sulu Sea.
“The ASG shifted in targeting vulnerable foreign-flagged tugboats and their crew due to the focused military operations against the group,” read a portion of the government report, according to the AP.
The abduction of shipping crews from Indonesia, Malaysia and elsewhere has put international pressure on the Philippine government to bring an end to ASG kidnappings. Duterte has ramped up military operations in western Mindanao and Sulu this year with the hopes of stamping out the rebel organization.
Domestically, Philippine security forces have been on heightened alert following a bombing that took place in Davao on Saturday, September 3. The incident was attributed to Maute, a group that has pledged solidarity with the Islamic State, and drove Duterte to declare “a state of national emergency.” (Eric Anthony Licas / AJPress)