Contains selective news articles I select

Archive for the ‘United Islands of the Philippines’ Category

U.S. kicks off Balikatan exercise in Philippines

By Allen Cone

APRIL 1, 2019

April 1 (UPI) — Balikatan 2019, an annual military exercise involving thousands of troops — and, for the first time, the F-35B Lightning II stealth fighter — began Monday in the Philippines.

The opening ceremony took place at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City with 4,000 Filipino, 3,500 American and 50 Australian troops, according to the U.S. Navy, and it will run through April 12.

This is the 35th Balikatan, which is a Tagalog language phrase in the Philippines for “shoulder-to-shoulder.”

On Saturday, the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, with embarked Marines from Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force 4, led by the 4th Marine Regiment, arrived in Subic Bay. The USS Wasp is part of the 7th Fleet.

Aboard the ship are F-35Bs, the short-takeoff, vertical-landing variant of the 5th generation fighter jet, in air support of Marines on the ground.

“We are excited to visit the Philippines for the first time since Wasp was forward deployed to 7th Fleet,” Capt. Colby Howard, Wasp’s commanding officer, said in the news release. “Balikatan is a great opportunity for the Navy, Marine Corps team and our allies from the Republic of the Philippines to learn from one another, and further improve our ability operate together.”

Balikatan helps train troops to support an ally should a crisis or natural disaster occur, according to the news release.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations members will participate as part of the International Observers Program.

U.S. and Philippine forces will conduct amphibious operations, live-fire training, urban operations, aviation operations and counterterrorism response on the islands of Luzon and Palawan, according to the Defense Department.

The focus this year is on maritime security and amphibious capabilities, as well as multinational interoperability through military exchanges.

Australia has sent special forces, medical, engineering and chaplaincy personnel.

“The exercise allows us to build our relationship with the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the United States Indo-Pacific Command,” the Australian chief of joint operations, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, said in a statement.

“Through this partnership, we aim to increase our ability to coordinate a multilateral response to a disaster or humanitarian crisis in a complex and ever-evolving regional security environment.”

Source: United Press International (UPI).

Link: https://www.upi.com/Defense-News/2019/04/01/US-kicks-off-Balikatan-exercise-in-Philippines/2951554120962/.

Advertisements

Amid loss of leaders, unknown militant rises in Philippines

February 22, 2019

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Unlike many of his slain comrades, the touted new leader of the Islamic State group in the southern Philippines lacks the bravado, clan name or foreign training. Not much is known about Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, but the attacks attributed to him heralding his rise are distinctly savage: A deadly bombing, which authorities say was a suicide attack by a foreign militant couple, blasted through a packed Roman Catholic cathedral in the middle of a Mass.

The Jan. 27 attack, which killed 23 people and wounded about 100 others on southern Jolo Island, and another suspected suicide bombing on nearby Basilan Island last July that officials said he masterminded, put Sawadjaan in the crosshairs of the U.S.-led global campaign against terrorism. It also comes at a time when the Islamic State group’s last enclave in eastern Syria is near its imminent downfall, signaling an end to the territorial rule of the self-declared “caliphate” that once stretched across much of Syria and Iraq.

A recent U.S. Department of Defense report to Congress said without elaborating that it believed Sawadjaan was the “acting emir,” or leader, in the Philippines of the Islamic State group, also known by its acronym ISIS. It added that no actual leader is confirmed to have been designated by the main ISIS command in the Middle East as of late last year.

Philippine Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano, however, said intelligence indicated that Sawadjaan, a Jolo-based commander of the brutal Abu Sayyaf extremist group, was installed as ISIS chief in a ceremony last year. Three other extremist groups were recognized as ISIS allies, he said.

Founded in the early 1990s as an offshoot of the decadeslong Muslim separatist rebellion in the south, the Abu Sayyaf lost its commanders early in battle, sending it to a violent path of terrorism and criminality. It has been blacklisted, along with ISIS-linked local groups, as a terrorist organization by the United States.

Now in his 60s, Sawadjaan is a late bloomer in the terrorism underworld. His turn at the helm came after dozens of commanders, some initially aligned with the al-Qaida movement and later with ISIS, were killed or captured in decades of military offensives. The biggest battle loss came in 2017 when several foreign and local commanders were killed as troops quelled a five-month siege by hundreds of militants in southern Marawi city.

Among those killed was Isnilon Hapilon, a fierce Abu Sayyaf leader, who was the first ISIS-designated leader in the Philippines. “I think Sawadjaan rose in rank because of seniority and there were no other leaders left. Almost everyone had been wiped out,” said Ano, a former military chief who oversaw the Marawi offensives and now supervises the national police as interior secretary.

Largely confined to Jolo’s poverty-wracked mountain settlements all his life, Sawadjaan was not the well-connected and media-savvy strategist foreign groups would normally ally with to expand their reach. His rise shows how ISIS would latch on desperately to any militant who could provide a sanctuary and armed fighters as its last strongholds crumble in Syria, Ano said.

“For the ISIS to perpetuate their terror actions, they need a base, they need people. That’s the role of Sawadjaan,” Ano told The Associated Press in an interview. He estimated that Sawadjaan commands about 200 combatants and followers.

Sawadjaan was born to a peasant family in predominantly Muslim Jolo and only likely finished grade school. Poverty drove him to work as a lumberjack in the jungles off Patikul town, where he married a woman from Tanum, the mountain village where he would base his Abu Sayyaf faction years later, a military officer, who has closely monitored the Abu Sayyaf, told the AP on condition of anonymity because of the nature of his work.

As an elderly villager, he served as a local mosque preacher, earning him the religious sobriquet “hatib,” or sermon leader in Arabic, the officer said. Sawadjaan first took up arms as a member of the Moro National Liberation Front, the largest Muslim secessionist group in the south of the largely Roman Catholic country, which went on to sign a 1996 Muslim autonomy deal with the government, according to the officer.

His commander was Radulan Sahiron, the locally popular one-armed rebel who broke away from the MNLF in 1992. They joined the Abu Sayyaf, which had just been organized by a Libyan-educated local militant, said MNLF leader Yusop Jikiri.

Sawadjaan would later part ways with Sahiron, including over Sahiron’s refusal to accomodate foreign militants for fear they’re a magnet for military airstrikes, said Abu Jihad, a former militant who has met Sawadjaan and was captured by troops. Abu Jihad described Sawadjaan as a folksy village elderly, who constantly lugged an M-16 rifle in his hinterland community but was friendly to visitors.

When fellow militants kidnapped a visiting American Muslim convert, Jeffrey Schilling, for ransom in August 2000, Sawadjaan stayed in the background but helped gather bamboos that were used to build huts for the militants and their hostage, Abu Jihad said.

“He can discuss local issues but didn’t have any wisdom on jihad,” he told AP by phone, referring to the militants’ concept of holy war. “He’s very accommodating. He’s the type who will not be hard to sway.”

Sawadjaan collaborated with diverse outlaws, both Islamic extremists and brigands, Ano said. He harbored the foreign couple, believed by Philippine officials to be Indonesians, who detonated the bombs in the Jolo cathedral last month, as well as a militant believed to be an Arab known as Abu Kathir al-Maghribi, who died in the van blast that also killed 10 government militiamen and villagers in Basilan last year, Ano added.

A video obtained by police officials showed al-Maghribi in Sawadjaan’s camp last year before the foreign militant reportedly carried out the suicide attack in Basilan. The video was seen by The AP. His daughter married a Malaysian militant known as Amin Baco, who has ISIS connections. His younger brother, Asman, also belonged to the Abu Sayyaf, according to a confidential police profile of Sawadjaan.

Sawadjaan and his men would later be implicated in the kidnappings of a German couple, two Canadian men, Schilling and a Jordanian journalist, Baker Atyani. Most were ransomed off or escaped but the Canadian men were separately beheaded on video by one of Sawadjaan’s militant nephews, Ben Yadah, according to military and police officials.

In the more than a year of jungle captivity under Sawadjaan’s group starting in June 2012, Atyani got a deep insight into the Abu Sayyaf and the man who sheltered other militants from Indonesia and Malaysia and fostered banditry in the blurry underworld of Islamic extremism in the volatile south. Atyani is believed to have been freed in exchange for ransom.

“It’s all money-driven, it’s not an ideology,” Atyani said. “However, he has sympathy for those who are allegedly fighting for a cause.”

Duterte sees bombed church, tells army to crush Abu Sayyaf

January 29, 2019

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — President Rodrigo Duterte and his top security officials on Monday visited a Catholic cathedral in the southern Philippines where suspected Islamic militants set off bombs that killed 20 people and wounded more than 100.

The first blast sent people, some of them wounded, fleeing out the church’s main door. Army troops and police were rushing inside when the second bomb exploded a minute later. The explosions scattered wooden pews inside the main hall, blasted out window glass panels and hurled human remains and debris across a town square fronting the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, witnesses said.

The attack occurred in the Sulu provincial capital on Jolo island, where Abu Sayyaf militants have carried out years of bombings, kidnappings and beheadings and have aligned themselves with the Islamic State group, which claimed responsibility for the attack.

Duterte walked slowly into the bombed cathedral, where the wooden pews were still in disarray. At one point he looked at the ceiling, where many panels were ripped off by the blasts. Duterte ordered the armed forces to crush the Abu Sayyaf. The group has an estimated 300 to 400 members, mostly in Sulu where it is holding several foreign and Filipino kidnap victims.

Duterte later met with families of the victims at a military camp in Jolo where coffins were laid side by side. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who was with the president, blamed the attack on Abu Sayyaf commander Hatib Sawadjaan, who he said has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group.

“This is an act of terrorism,” Lorenzana said. “This is not a religious war.” Sawadjaan is based in the jungles of Patikul town, near Jolo, and has been blamed for ransom kidnappings and beheadings of hostages, including two Canadian men, in recent years.

Police put forces around the country on heightened alert to prevent similar attacks. The bombings came nearly a week after minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation endorsed a new autonomous region in the southern Philippines in hopes of ending nearly five decades of a separatist rebellion that has left 150,000 people dead. Although most Muslim areas approved the autonomy deal, voters in Sulu province rejected it. The province is home to a rival rebel faction that is opposed to the deal as well as smaller militant cells that are not part of any peace process.

A statement by the Islamic State group posted on social media claimed the attack was carried out by two suicide bombers who wore explosive belts, one detonating at the gate and the other in the parking lot.

Police said at least 20 people died and 111 were wounded. The fatalities were 15 civilians and five troops. Among the wounded, about 90 are civilians. The United Nations and others denounced the attack. The U.N. Security Council late Monday condemned “the heinous and cowardly” attack and “underlined the need to hold perpetrators, organizers, financiers and sponsors” of the attacks accountable.

Western governments have welcomed the autonomy pact in part to ease concerns that Filipino militants could ally themselves with foreigners and turn the southern region into a breeding ground for extremists.

Aside from Abu Sayyaf, other militant groups in Sulu include a small band of young jihadis aligned with the Islamic State group. Government forces have pressed on sporadic offensives to crush the militants, and Duterte has extended martial law in the entire southern third of the country to allow troops to finish off radical Muslim groups and other insurgents, but bombings and other attacks have continued.

Duterte to see site of fatal bombings, Abu Sayyaf suspected

January 28, 2019

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — President Rodrigo Duterte and his top security officials planned on Monday to visit a Catholic cathedral in the southern Philippines where suspected Islamic militants set off bombs that killed at least 20 people and wounded more than 100.

The first blast sent people, some of them wounded, fleeing out the church’s main door. Army troops and police were rushing inside when the second bomb exploded a minute later. The explosions scattered wooden pews inside the main hall, blasted out window glass panels and hurled human remains and debris across a town square fronting the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, witnesses said.

The attack occurred in the Sulu provincial capital on Jolo island, where Abu Sayyaf militants have carried out years of bombings, kidnappings and beheadings and have aligned themselves with the Islamic State group, which claimed responsibility for the attack.

Duterte was to meet with some of the survivors and hold a security meeting with military and police officials on Monday. Police have put forces around the country on heightened alert to prevent similar attacks.

“We will pursue to the ends of the earth the ruthless perpetrators behind this dastardly crime until every killer is brought to justice and put behind bars. The law will give them no mercy,” the president’s office said earlier.

The bombings came nearly a week after minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation endorsed a new autonomous region in the southern Philippines in hopes of ending nearly five decades of a separatist rebellion that has left 150,000 people dead. Although most Muslim areas approved the autonomy deal, voters in Sulu province, where Jolo is located, rejected it. The province is home to a rival rebel faction that’s opposed to the deal as well as smaller militant cells that are not part of any peace process.

A top Philippine government official told The Associated Press that an Abu Sayyaf commander, Hatib Sawadjaan, is one of the main suspects. At least four of Sawadjaan’s men were filmed by security cameras near the bombed area, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the investigation.

Sawadjaan is based in the jungles of Patikul town, near Jolo, and has been blamed for kidnappings for ransom and beheadings of hostages, including two Canadian men, in recent years. Sawadjaan’s faction has aired ransom-demanding videos that used Islamic State-styled black flags as backdrops.

A statement by the Islamic State group posted on social media claimed the attack was carried out by two suicide bombers who wore explosive belts, one detonating at the gate and the other in the parking lot.

Police said at least 20 people died and 111 were wounded. The fatalities were 15 civilians and five troops. Among the wounded, about 90 are civilians. The United Nations and others denounced the attack. In a statement attributed to a spokesman, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice and reiterated the U.N.’s support for the Philippines’ efforts to fight terrorism and to carry forward a peace process in the Muslim region.

Western governments welcomed the autonomy pact in part to ease concerns that Filipino militants could ally themselves with foreigners and turn the southern region into a breeding ground for extremists.

Aside from Abu Sayyaf, other militant groups in Sulu include a small band of young jihadis aligned with the Islamic State group. Government forces have pressed on sporadic offensives to crush the militants, and Duterte has extended martial law in the entire southern third of the country to allow troops to finish off radical Muslim groups and other insurgents, but bombings and other attacks have continued.

20 dead as bombs target Sunday Mass in Philippine cathedral

January 27, 2019

JOLO, Philippines (AP) — Two bombs minutes apart tore through a Roman Catholic cathedral on a southern Philippine island where Muslim militants are active, killing at least 20 people and wounding 81 others during a Sunday Mass, officials said.

Witnesses said the first blast inside the Jolo cathedral in the provincial capital sent churchgoers, some of them wounded, to stampede out of the main door. Army troops and police posted outside were rushing in when the second bomb went off about one minute later near the main entrance, causing more deaths and injuries. The military was checking a report that the second explosive device may have been attached to a parked motorcycle.

The initial explosion scattered the wooden pews inside the main hall and blasted window glass panels, and the second bomb hurled human remains and debris across a town square fronting the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, witnesses said. Cellphone signal was cut off in the first hours after the attack. The witnesses who spoke to The Associated Press refused to give their names or were busy at the scene of the blasts.

Police said at least 20 people died and 81 were wounded, correcting an earlier toll due to double counting. The fatalities included 15 civilians and five troops. Among the wounded were 14 troops, two police and 65 civilians.

Troops in armored carriers sealed off the main road leading to the church while vehicles transported the dead and wounded to the town hospital. Some casualties were evacuated by air to nearby Zamboanga city.

“I have directed our troops to heighten their alert level, secure all places of worships and public places at once, and initiate pro-active security measures to thwart hostile plans,” said Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana in a statement.

“We will pursue to the ends of the earth the ruthless perpetrators behind this dastardly crime until every killer is brought to justice and put behind bars. The law will give them no mercy,” the office of President Rodrigo Duterte said in Manila.

It said that “the enemies of the state boldly challenged the government’s capability to secure the safety of citizens in that region. The (Armed Forces of the Philippines) will rise to the challenge and crush these godless criminals.”

Jolo island has long been troubled by the presence of Abu Sayyaf militants, who are blacklisted by the United States and the Philippines as a terrorist organization because of years of bombings, kidnappings and beheadings. A Catholic bishop, Benjamin de Jesus, was gunned down by suspected militants outside the cathedral in 1997.

No one has immediately claimed responsibility for the latest attack. It came nearly a week after minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation endorsed a new autonomous region in the southern Philippines in hopes of ending nearly five decades of a separatist rebellion that has left 150,000 people dead. Although most of the Muslim areas approved the autonomy deal, voters in Sulu province, where Jolo is located, rejected it. The province is home to a rival rebel faction that’s opposed to the deal as well as smaller militant cells that not part of any peace process.

Western governments have welcomed the autonomy pact. They worry that small numbers of Islamic State-linked militants from the Middle East and Southeast Asia could forge an alliance with Filipino insurgents and turn the south into a breeding ground for extremists.

“This bomb attack was done in a place of peace and worship, and it comes at a time when we are preparing for another stage of the peace process in Mindanao,” said Gov. Mujiv Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. “Human lives are irreplaceable,” he added, calling on Jolo residents to cooperate with authorities to find the perpetrators of this “atrocity.”

Security officials were looking “at different threat groups and they still can’t say if this has something to do with the just concluded plebiscite,” Oscar Albayalde, the national police chief, told ABS-CBN TV network. Hermogenes Esperon, the national security adviser, said that the new autonomous region, called Bangsamoro, “signifies the end of war for secession. It stands for peace in Mindanao.”

Aside from the small but brutal Abu Sayyaf group, other militant groups in Sulu include a small band of young jihadis aligned with the Islamic State group, which has also carried out assaults, including ransom kidnappings and beheadings.

Abu Sayyaf militants are still holding at least five hostages — a Dutch national, two Malaysians, an Indonesian and a Filipino — in their jungle bases mostly near Sulu’s Patikul town, not far from Jolo.

Government forces have pressed on sporadic offensives to crush the militants, including those in Jolo, a poverty-wracked island of more than 700,000 people. A few thousand Catholics live mostly in the capital of Jolo.

There have been speculations that the bombings may be a diversionary move by Muslim militants after troops recently carried out an offensive that killed a number of IS-linked extremists in an encampment in the hinterlands of Lanao del Sur province, also in the south. The area is near Marawi, a Muslim city that was besieged for five months by hundreds of IS-aligned militants, including foreign fighters, in 2017. Troops quelled the insurrection, which left more 1,100 mostly militants dead and the heartland of the mosque-studded city in ruins.

Duterte declared martial law in the entire southern third of the country to deal with the Marawi siege, his worst security crisis. His martial law declaration has been extended to allow troops to finish off radical Muslim groups and other insurgents but bombings and other attacks have continued.

Associated Press writer Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.

2 dead, nearly 30 wounded in bomb blast at Philippine mall

December 31, 2018

COTABATO, Philippines (AP) — Suspected Muslim militants remotely detonated a bomb near the entrance of a mall in the southern Philippines on Monday as people did last-minute shopping ahead of New Year’s Eve celebrations, killing at least two and wounding nearly 30, officials said.

The bomb went off near the baggage counter at the entrance of the South Seas mall in Cotabato city, wounding shoppers, vendors and commuters. Authorities recovered another unexploded bomb nearby as government forces imposed a security lockdown in the city, military and police officials said.

Maj. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said by phone that an initial investigation showed the design of the bomb was similar to those used in the past by local Muslim militants who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group.

Government forces launched an offensive against the militants belonging to a group called Daulah Islamiyah last week and at least seven of the militants died in the fighting, Sobejana said. “This is a part of the retaliation, but the problem is they’re victimizing innocent civilians,” he told reporters.

Supt. Romeo Galgo Jr., the deputy police director of Cotabato, said witnesses saw a man leave a box in a crowded area near the mall’s entrance where vendors and shoppers were milling. The explosion shattered glass panels and scattered debris to the street fronting the mall.

Two of the roughly 30 people hit by the blast died while being brought to a hospital, Sobejana said. Cotabato Mayor Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi condemned the bombing and called on residents to help fight terrorism.

“This is not just another terroristic act but an act against humanity. I cannot fathom how such evil exists in this time of merry making,” she said. “It is unimaginable how some people can start the new year with an act of cruelty but no matter how you threaten us, the people of Cotabato are resilient. … We will stand up against terrorism,” she told reporters.

The bombing, the latest in a number of attacks blamed on militants in the volatile region, occurred despite on-and-off military assaults against pockets of militant groups operating in the marshlands and hinterlands not far from Cotabato and outlying provinces.

Hundreds of militants aligned with the Islamic State group laid siege in the southern Islamic city of Marawi in May last year, sparking five months of intense fighting and military airstrikes that left more than 1,100 mostly militants dead and displaced hundreds of thousands of villagers.

President Rodrigo Duterte placed the southern third of the country under martial law to deal with the Marawi siege, the worst security crisis he has faced since taking office in mid-2016.

Philippines arrests US priest accused of abusing altar boys

December 06, 2018

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine immigration authorities have arrested an American Roman Catholic priest accused of sexually assaulting altar boys in a remote central town in a case one official described as “shocking and appalling.”

The Rev. Kenneth Bernard Hendricks, who has been indicted in Ohio for illicit sexual conduct in the Philippines, was arrested in a church in Naval town in the island province of Biliran on Wednesday, Bureau of Immigration spokeswoman Dana Sandoval said Thursday.

An Ohio court had issued a warrant for the arrest of 77-year-old Hendricks, who has been living in the Philippines for 37 years, Sandoval said, adding that the U.S. criminal case stemmed from complaints from the alleged Filipino victims.

There was no immediate reaction from the U.S. Embassy, Philippine Catholic Church officials or Hendricks, who was flown to Manila and detained in an immigration detention center. The suspect allegedly abused seven victims, who served mostly as altar boys in Naval, in 50 counts of molestation in his residence in a case that’s “both shocking and appalling,” Sandoval said.

“The victims were in his house and the abuses were committed while he was taking a bath with each of them,” Sandoval said by telephone. U.S. authorities provided information about the alleged sexual assaults to the Philippine government, she said.

The victims were reportedly warned they would be locked up in jail if they told anyone about the abuses, she said. “Several of his victims have come forward with their statements,” Sandoval said. The U.S. Embassy may revoke Hendrick’s passport to help Philippine authorities immediately deport the priest, the immigration bureau said in a statement.

Hendricks is “a fugitive from justice that poses a risk to public safety and security,” Sandoval said. “We will not allow sexual predators to prey on our children. People like him must be kicked out and banned from the Philippines.”

Tag Cloud