The United States has advised ships and mariners to remain vigilant when transiting the Sulu and Celebes Seas following the spate of piracy and ransom kidnappings by the Islamic State-affiliated Abu Sayyaf Group in southern Philippines.
The Maritime Administration under the US Department of Transportation said there have been at least 14 reported kidnappings and one murder, of which at least 10 incidents were reportedly linked to the Abu Sayyaf over the past 12 months.
“US flag vessels are advised to remain vigilant and adhere to the counter-piracy annex of their approved Vessel Security Plan when transiting the Sulu and Celebes Seas, in light of recent boardings and kidnappings for ransom that have taken place in the area.”
“Previously, only towing and fishing vessels were targeted and crewmembers kidnapped. However, since October 2016, [the Abu Sayyaf]has reportedly targeted three large commercial vessels and one yacht,” the May 8 advisory stated.
It noted that in November 2016, Abu Sayyaf boarded a German yacht and killed one crewmember, and in February 2017, the rebels killed the remaining crewmember after a ransom demand was not met. “Thus far, no US vessels have been involved in these incidents,” the advisory said.
The US Maritime Administration further reminded American flag vessels and mariners to report all suspicious activities and events to the US Coast Guard National Response Center, or call 800-424-8802.
A “Ship Hostile Action Report” should also be sent to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency as soon as possible following an incident or suspected activity, including apparent surveillance being conducted by small vessels or boats, it said.
The US Embassy in Manila on Tuesday warned American citizens against traveling to Palawan province after receiving intelligence reports that terrorist groups may be planning to kidnap foreigners there.
“The US Embassy has received credible information that terrorist groups may be planning to conduct kidnapping operations targeting foreign nationals in the areas of Palawan Province, Philippines, to include Puerto Princesa City, and the areas surrounding Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. US citizens are advised to carefully consider this information as they make their travel plans and to review personal security plans, avoid large crowds and gatherings, and remain vigilant at all times,” it said.
It also reiterated the “ongoing threat” of terrorist actions and violence against US citizens and interests abroad, including the Philippines, citing the US Worldwide Caution dated March 6, 2017.
Extremists, the US said, have targeted sporting events, theaters, markets, mass transportation systems including airlines, and other public venues where large crowds gather. Crowded nightclubs, shopping malls, buses and popular restaurants have also been targets.
“US citizens should be mindful of the importance of taking preventative measures to ensure their safety and security while traveling and residing in the Philippines,” the embassy said.
At least two travel agencies on Thursday reported some booking cancellations in Palawan and Bohol, although not on a massive scale.
An official of Rajah Travel confirmed this to radio station dzBB, without going into details.
Wow Philippines Travel Agency co-owner Rick St. John told The Manila Times: “We recently had five booking cancellations in Bohol and Palawan because of the US travel warning.”
He said the US government should have been more responsible in issuing a travel warning as tourism is a major component of the economy.
St. John, an American, said he believes the Philippines is a safe country. Authorities, he said, should have been more specific on the areas affected by terrorist activity, and should not have “painted a broad stroke.”
“We are earning on commissions. Once the government issues a travel warning, it greatly affects our business,” St. John said.
Palace: ‘Govt on top of situation’
Malacañang assured the public that the government was on top of the situation after the US advisory. In a statement, presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said authorities were on high alert.
“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 (Wescom) which covers the province of Palawan, are on heightened alert to prevent any untoward incidents,” Abella said.
“Wescom, along with the Philippine Coast Guard and the Philippine National Police, as well as the Provincial Government of Palawan and the City Government of Puerto Princesa, are in close coordination in enforcing law and order,” Abella added.
The Palace official urged the public to report suspicious activities or persons.
“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.
President Duterte did not confirm nor deny the terrorist threat when asked to comment on the US travel advisory before he flew to Cambodia on Wednesday.
Instead, the President said he had ordered security forces battling Abu Sayyaf bandits to “shoot them on sight.” “Do not waste your bullet [then]we take care of them [in the]hospital,” he said. “Expend your bullet to finish the problem because it is really a problem. It is a problem of security, law and order.”