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Tightest possible security for Bohol ASEAN meetings

THE Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) assured last weekend that it will wipe out the Abu Sayyaf within three months. Three months ago, President Duterte had ordered the military to finish the Abu Sayyaf in six months. “We are confident that we will meet our targets and deadline,” AFP spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said.

This Monday, militiamen of the 4th Special Forces Company under the AFP Western Mindanao Command were on patrol in a barangay of Sumisip town on Basilan island, just south of the Zamboanga peninsula in Mindanao, when attacked by the Abu Sayyaf. Three of the militiamen were killed. Reinforcements arrived from the 1st Special Forces Company and in the ensuing battle, five troopers were wounded.

The next day, another clash with the Abu Sayyaf was reported. The new clash was in Bohol in central Visayas. A joint military-police report said nine were killed in the fighting – five Abu Sayyaf, three soldiers, and one policeman.

The site of this latest gunbattle raises new concerns for the government. Not only is it a long distance from the traditional lairs of the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan and Sulu. It is in Bohol, which is where the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will be holding four days of ministerial meetings next week, on April 19-22.

The Bohol incident has caused the United States Embassy to advise its citizens to avoid visiting Central Visayas, as it has received reports that terrorist groups may carry out kidnappings in Bohol and Cebu. Canada issued a warning to its citizens to avoid all travel in the Sulu archipelago, the southern Sulu Sea, and the waters off southern Palawan.

The Abu Sayyaf has long been operating in Mindanao, particularly in Basilan and in the islands in the Sulu Sea. It has become notorious for beheading its foreign hostages who were unable to pay ransom money. Lately, it has been connected to Islamic State militants in the Middle East who are reportedly out to set up a regional base in Mindanao.

The Armed Forces are moving mightily to meet the six-month deadline given them by President Duterte. We hope they succeed in ending a threat to peace and order in Mindanao that has brought us world condemnation because of its foreign victims.

In the meantime, the greatest of care must be taken to secure the ASEAN ministers meeting in Bohol in a few days. The visiting foreign officials would be just the kind of victims the Abu Sayyaf would like to hostage.