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Archive for the ‘United Islands of the Philippines’ Category

Duterte in China amid expectation he’ll raise sea disputes

August 29, 2019

BEIJING (AP) — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was in Beijing on Thursday for a meeting with counterpart Xi Jinping in which the Southeast Asian leader is expected to discuss a ruling on the disputed South China Sea.

The 2016 Hague arbitration mostly invalidated China’s claim to virtually the entire South China Sea and found that it violated the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. The row over the waters — a major global shipping route thought to be rich in oil and gas reserves — has for years marred China’s relationship with the Philippines and other neighboring countries with territorial claims over the disputed area, where Beijing has transformed a string of disputed reefs into missile-protected island bases.

Duterte, however, has largely avoided the subject in favor of seeking warmer ties with Beijing. Philippine nationalists and left-wing groups have criticized the president for not immediately demanding Chinese compliance with the arbitration ruling, which came the same year Duterte took office.

The Philippine leader briefly mentioned the issue to Xi on the sidelines of an April conference for China’s Belt and Road global infrastructure initiative, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo indicated Duterte will raise the matter in a more direct way during this visit.

It’s unlikely that Duterte’s move will have any effect on China, said Jay Batongbacal, a maritime affairs scholar at the University of the Philippines. “China’s position will not change just because Duterte changes tune,” Batongbacal said. “At best, Duterte might be seen as using the arbitration discussion as a move to leverage other concessions. At worst, it may be just for show.”

China refused to participate in the arbitration case initiated by Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, and has ignored the ruling. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said last week that the country’s stance has not changed.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana asked Beijing this month to explain the activities of Chinese research vessels and warships in what the Philippines claims as its waters, and accused China of “bullying.”

Lorenzana said that China did not ask for permission to send several warships through the Sibutu Strait at the southern tip of the Philippine archipelago on four occasions between February and July. He said two Chinese research ships have also been operating in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Meanwhile, Philippine military spokesman Brigadier General Edgard Arevalo accused China of “duplicity,” claiming the Chinese warships shut off their identification transponders while passing through Philippine waters to avoid radar detection.

China has said it is ready to work with the Philippines to jointly safeguard maritime security and order. In an apparent attempt to ease tensions ahead of Thursday’s meeting, a fishery association in southern Guangdong province apologized this week for colliding with a Philippine fishing boat in June.

The Philippines filed a diplomatic protest after the fisherman said a Chinese vessel rammed their anchored boat and abandoned them as it sank in the Reed Bank. “I feel deep regret that this accident had to happen and I would like to express my deep sympathy to the Filipino fishermen,” the president of the Guangdong Fishery Mutual Insurance Association said in a letter sent to the Philippine Embassy in Beijing.

Gomez reported from Manila, Philippines.

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245 rescued from burning ferry in Philippine waters; 3 dead

August 28, 2019

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Fishing boats and passing ships rescued 245 people from a burning ferry overnight in southern Philippine waters, and the coast guard was still searching Wednesday though it wasn’t clear if anyone was missing. A 1-year-old girl and two other people died.

The ship’s manifest had 36 crewmembers and 136 passengers, 28 of them children, and the coast guard said investigators would ask the ferry owner and skipper to explain the discrepancy between the listed occupants and the number rescued.

Photos showed passengers wearing orange life vests waiting to be rescued at the loading bay of the ferry, which also carried some vehicles. Local news reports quoted some passengers as saying they jumped into the choppy waters in panic and were rescued by passing cargo and fishing vessels.

“We did not have any patrol ship in the area, so we alerted nearby ships and boats to render assistance because it was an emergency,” coast guard spokesman Armand Balilo said by phone. “It’s good that a number of ships immediately responded. We have to recognize what they did.”

The fire apparently started in the engine room. Orange flames and smoke consumed almost the entire vessel but the M/V Lite Ferry 16 stayed afloat, about 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) off a port in Dapitan city of Zamboanga del Norte province, where it was heading after departing Santander town in central Cebu province Tuesday.

Search and rescue efforts were continuing, Balilo said around midday. It was unclear whether there were still people missing but no relatives have approached authorities to report any, and an ongoing search will continue, Balilo said.

A 1-year-old girl, a 60-year-old male passenger and a third person died, Balilo said. He did not have more details on the identity of the third person and the causes of their deaths. Meanwhile, in the northern Philippines, ferries were warned not to go to sea after a fast-moving storm blew across the main island of Luzon overnight. Heavy rains fell in northern provinces, but no casualties or major damage was reported, and the storm has weakened into a tropical depression.

Sea accidents are common in the Philippine archipelago because of frequent storms, badly maintained boats, overcrowding and weak enforcement of safety regulations. In December 1987, the ferry Dona Paz sank after colliding with a fuel tanker in the Philippines, killing more than 4,341 people in the world’s worst peacetime maritime disaster.

8 dead, 60 hurt as quakes shake northern Philippine isles

July 27, 2019

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Two strong earthquakes hours apart struck a group of sparsely populated islands in the Luzon Strait in the northern Philippines early Saturday, killing at least eight people, injuring about 60 and causing substantial damage.

The quakes collapsed houses built of stone and wood, arousing residents from sleep, said Roldan Esdicul, who heads the Batanes provincial disaster-response office. “Our bed and everything were swaying from side to side like a hammock,” Esdicul told The Associated Press by cellphone from Basco town, the provincial capital. “We all ran out to safety.”

More than 1,000 residents of hard-hit Itbayat island — nearly half of the island’s population of mostly fishermen — were advised not to return to their homes and stay in the town plaza as successive aftershocks shook the region, he said.

“The wounded are still being brought in,” Itbayat Mayor Raul de Sagon told a local radio station. He said more doctors may be needed if the number of injured from interior villages rises. The Philippine seismology agency said the quakes measured 5.4 and 5.9. A third quake magnitude 5.7 struck later Saturday.

Esdicul said he was already in his office with the provincial governor when the second and more powerful quake struck about three hours after the first shock. “We have to hold on because you can’t stand or walk. It was that strong,” he said.

The initial quake severely cracked the bell tower of the island’s old limestone church, the 19th-century Santa Maria de Mayan, a popular tourist attraction. The tower collapsed when the second temblor hit the island, he said.

An Itbayat hospital was damaged but remained open. An air force helicopter and a plane were en route to Batanes to help ferry and provide aid to victims. Itbayat, part of the Batanes Islands, has a population of about 2,800 people and lies in the Luzon Strait that separates the Philippines and Taiwan. The islands are famous for their stone-built houses, coral walls and cogon grass roofs.

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/.

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.

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