US warns of growing kidnap threat in southern Philippines

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The US State Department warns against “non-essential” travel to the Sulu archipelago and the southern tip of the western island of Palawan (AFP Photo/Ritchie B. Tongo)

The United States has issued a fresh travel warning for most of the southern Philippines after a surge of kidnappings there, with some victims being snatched from vessels at sea.

A State Department advisory urged 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 Abu Sayyaf, a group of Islamic militants infamous for kidnappings, bombings, and beheadings.

The group has abducted eight foreigners in the past three years, as well as some from neighbouring 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 shipping have 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 minister Luhut Panjaitan said Thursday.

“We don’t want to see this area become a new Somalia,” he added.

Filipino officials told AFP Friday they could not immediately confirm the ministerial meeting.

Britain also warned Wednesday of the widening threat of kidnappings in coastal resorts and dive sites in Mindanao, while Canada advised 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.

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