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Thursday, May 11, 2017

Abu Sayyaf plot to kidnap tourists on Palawan island

Warnings by US, UK embassies come after group's failed abduction in Bohol last month

A small but brutal group of Islamist extremists are plotting to kidnap visitors to Palawan island, a top tourist draw in central Philippines, a month after a foiled attempt at another tourism hot spot.

A travel advisory from the United States embassy on Tuesday said there is "credible information" that the Abu Sayyaf, which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, "may be planning to conduct kidnapping operations targeting foreign nationals in the areas of Palawan province".

The embassy identified two likely targets - the capital city of Puerto Princesa and a World Heritage-listed underground river - which attract more than a million tourists each year.

Citing the US advisory, the British embassy also advised Britons to "carefully consider travel plans and exercise heightened vigilance in these areas".

Puerto Princesa is about 400km north-west of the Abu Sayyaf's strongholds in Sulu province.

Security officials yesterday acknowledged these reports, but said they had not monitored any "significant" or "specific" threat.

Lieutenant-General Raul del Rosario, head of the military's Western Command, told reporters there were reports the Abu Sayyaf was targeting Coron, a resort town in Palawan's northern tip popular for its chalk-white beaches and diving sites, following a failed kidnapping raid last month on Bohol island, farther north of Palawan.

He said military and police outposts in Palawan have been on "heightened alert" since.

The Abu Sayyaf had raided Puerto Princesa before, in 2001, when they seized three Americans and 17 Filipinos from the Dos Palmas resort in Honda Bay. One of the Americans was beheaded, the first foreigner to be executed by the Abu Sayyaf, while another was killed in a military rescue attempt a year later. The third American was freed in the rescue effort.

Mr Allan Carlos, who owns a hotel in Puerto Princesa, told The Straits Times there has been a "high concentration of police and intelligence operations in tourism areas in Palawan" since the Dos Palmas incident. He said resort owners have been lending their own speedboats and planes to help security forces monitor possible entry points for terrorists. Some have even installed their own radar systems, he added.

Security forces foiled last month an attempt by about a dozen Abu Sayyaf militants to kidnap tourists in Bohol.

The US embassy had also issued an advisory at the time, warning Americans against travelling to Bohol and nearby Cebu island.

A team of soldiers and policemen tracked down the militants a day after they arrived at a remote river town in Bohol on three speedboats, and engaged them in a gun battle. Nine militants, three soldiers and one policeman were killed in the clashes, according to the authorities. They said another militant died in police custody.

Among those killed was Abu Sayyaf spokesman Muamar Askali, tagged to several high-profile kidnappings, and Joselito Milloria, the Abu Sayyaf's point man in Bohol.

The Abu Sayyaf was formed by disgruntled Moro Islamic fighters in 1991, with Al-Qaeda funding. However, it did not gain prominence till May 2000, when it attacked a dive resort in Sipadan, Malaysia, taking 21 hostages.

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