By CLAIRE R. MORALES TRUE
MANILA (PhilAmPress/PhlTodayUSA) – The United States government has renewed its travel warning to the Philippines, citing continuing terrorist threats, kidnapping of foreigners and insurgent activities, particularly in the Sulu archipelago and Sulu Sea and the island of Mindanao.
In an advisory to US citizens posted on the US Embassy in Manila website, Americans were told by the US State Department to avoid “all non-essential travel to the Sulu Archipelago and through the southern Sulu Sea, and to exercise extreme caution when traveling to the island of Mindanao, due to continued terrorist threats, insurgent activities and kidnappings.”
The new travel advisory amends the last travel warning issued by Washington on October 21, 2015 and reflects continuing concern on the security situation in Mindanao.
U.S. citizens should continue to defer non-essential travel to the Sulu Archipelago, due to the high threat of kidnapping of international travelers, increased threat of maritime kidnappings against small boats in the vicinity of the Sulu Archipelago, and violence linked to insurgency and terrorism there, according to the advisory.
U.S. citizens should defer non-essential travel through the southern Sulu Sea region from the southern tip of Palawan, along the coast of Sabah, Malaysia and the islands of the Sulu Archipelago, up to Zamboanga City, Mindanao, the advisory added.
“Terrorist and insurgent groups based in the Sulu Archipelago continue to target foreigners for kidnapping in the Eastern Sabah province of Malaysia and in the southern Sulu Sea area,” the State Department warned.
U.S. citizens should also continue to exercise extreme caution if traveling to certain regions and cities of the island of Mindanao, according to the advisory, adding “separatist and terrorist groups continue to carry out attacks and kidnappings against civilians, foreigners, political leaders, and Philippine security forces in Mindanao.”
The advisory noted that since January 2015, at least 15 separate kidnappings have been reported across Mindanao. In western Mindanao, terrorist, insurgent, and criminal gangs regularly conduct kidnappings for ransom, including the kidnapping of a foreigner in Dipolog City in early October 2015 by unknown assailants.
In central Mindanao, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) remains 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, according to the advisory.
The State Department noted that while there have been no recent reported terrorist threats or incidents within the Davao City or Surigao city limits, eastern Mindanao, the area is not free from threats.
In September 2015, assailants belonging to the Abu Sayyaf Group kidnapped four individuals, including three foreigners, from the popular resort island of Samal, a 15 minute boat ride from Davao City, according to the advisory.
“ There have been no reports of U.S. citizens in Mindanao targeted specifically for their nationality; however, general threats to U.S. citizens and other foreigners throughout Mindanao remain a concern,” the State Department stated.
Although U.S. government officials in the Philippines travel to Mindanao for official business without incident, the Embassy has imposed strict restrictions on all but the most essential travel to the area, and Embassy employees must receive special authorization from Embassy security officials to travel to any location in Mindanao or the Sulu Archipelago.
Travel warnings, according to the State Department, are issued when “long-term, protracted conditions make a country dangerous or unstable,” which leads them to recommend that “Americans avoid or consider the risk of travel to that country.”
Around 400,000 American citizens are living and working in the Philippines. Washington has long expressed concern about the presence of terrorist groups in the Philippines specifically the Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf Group and the Jemaah Islamiyah in Mindanao.
It has warned its citizens in the past from traveling to the country and other parts of Mindanao and to avoid public areas like ship and bus terminals, places of worships and shopping malls, wherein some of it were bombed and targeted by attacks. (Claire Morales True/PhilAmPressfirstname.lastname@example.org)