State dept. warns travelers to exercise “extreme caution” in Mindanao; but US ambassador visiting Mindanao

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/15 June) —  The US Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs on June 14 issued a travel advisory warning US citizens of “the risks of terrorist activity” in the Philippines, “particularly in the Sulu archipelago and on the island of Mindanao.”

A day after the advisory, however, the US Embassy in Manila issued a media advisory that US Ambassador Harry Thomas will visit Mindanao’s Davao City on June 16 to speak at the closing ceremony of a training workshop on combating human trafficking in the Philippines and to visit projects and initiatives supported by the U.S. Government in the area.

The United States on June 15 warned its citizens to exercise extreme caution when travelling to the Philippines due to the risk of terrorist activity, particularly in the Sulu Archipelago and on the island of Mindanao

In Manila, reported that National Security Adviser Cesar Garcia stressed there is no immediate terror threat to the Philippines.

Garcia told ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC) that the travel advisory is “generalized,” and is not far from the assessment of local security officers themselves.

“Based on our assessment, Metro Manila is still moderate, while Mindanao is high. So it’s really consistent with the advisory,” he said.
Garcia acknowledged his office has been receiving numerous reports about possible threats, but assessed that “these are not credible.”

“We have an intelligence community that is always on the lookout,” he told ANC.

The travel advisory from the US State Department said terrorist attacks “could be indiscriminate and could occur in other areas, to include Manila” and that target sites “may be public gathering places including, but not limited to, airports, shopping malls, conference centers, and other public venues.”

The recent advisory replaced the Travel Warning issued November 2, 2010.

“Travelers should exercise extreme caution if traveling to Mindanao or the Sulu Archipelago. Regional terrorist groups have carried out bombings resulting in injuries and death. Sporadic clashes have occurred between lawless groups and the Philippine Armed Forces throughout Mindanao, particularly in rural areas. U.S. Government employees must seek special permission to travel to Mindanao or the Sulu Archipelago,” the June 14, 2011 advisory states.

The advisory did not identify the “regional terrorist groups” that have reportedly “carried out bombings.”

No major bombing incident has occurred in Mindanao between the last advisory on November 2, 2010 and the June 14, 2011 advisory.

The June 14, 2011 travel advisory also cited the declaration of a state of emergency on November 24, 2009 in Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat provinces and the city of Cotabato, following the Ampatuan Massacre of 58 persons, 32 of them media workers in the worst election-related violence in the country’s history.

“Although the elections have passed, this state of emergency is still in effect. Travelers should be aware of heightened police activity and significant military presence in these areas. They should carefully research restrictions imposed on travel and follow the instructions of government officials,” the advisory read.

It also said kidnap-for-ransom gangs are “active throughout the Philippines and have targeted foreigners” and that “U.S. citizens traveling, living, and working throughout the Philippines are urged to exercise heightened caution in public gathering places.  U.S. citizens should exercise caution when traveling in the vicinity of demonstrations since they can turn confrontational and possibly escalate to violence.”

The Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs has noted the update to the travel advisory for its nationals on the Philippines issued by the State Department of the United States.

A statement issued by the Office of the Presidential Spokesperson said “there have been amendments from the previous November 2, 2010 travel advisory indicating that progress in the security situation, and therefore the safety of tourists and visitors, have been observed. The administration is continuously working to ensure public safety and security in this regard.”

Garcia told ANC the update may be a result of the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden which triggered fears of retaliation.
Bin Laden’s death in Pakistan in the hands of US operatives was announced by President Barack Obama on May 2 this year.

“Apprehensions [against Abu Sayyaf members] were higher for the first 5 months of the year compared to the whole of last year. It’s an indication of the government’s determination to pursue counter-terrorism programs,” Garcia told ANC.  (MindaNews)