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ZAMBOANGA CITY – President Rodrigo Duterte has warned foreigners to stay out of Zamboanga following a credible intelligence report that ISIS and Abu Sayyaf militants are targeting the southern Philippine city.

Addressing the participants to the 7th Union Asia Pacific Regional Conference in Pasay City, Duterte was quoted by ABS-CBN as saying: “There’s a certain place which I would not recommend to anybody to go there, not just as yet, is Zamboanga. Some Europeans go there for the bird watching and they are captured and eventually they are decapitated even after the payment of ransom.”

“It is the ISIS actually. It used to be the Abu Sayyaf. Now it’s an Abu Sayyaf territory. They do nothing but to kill and destroy,” he added.

But Duterte may have been confused Zamboanga City to Tawi-Tawi province when he said that some Europeans birdwatchers were kidnapped and eventually decapitated by militants.

There had been no kidnappings of foreign birdwatchers in Zamboanga City but in February 2012, Abu Sayyaf militants under Hajan Sawadjaan and suspected Moro National Liberation Front members kidnapped two European wildlife photographers Lorenzo Vinciguerra, from Switzerland; and Ewold Horn, 54, from Holland, in the coastal village of Parangan in Panglima Sugala town in Tawi-Tawi.

Vinciguerra had escaped from his guards and recovered by soldiers in December 2014 after he allegedly killed one of his guards – Juhurim Hussien – with a bolo. The fate of Horn is still unknown.

Suicide Bombers

Philippine authorities blamed the Abu Sayyaf and ISIS in the twin suicide bombings of a Catholic cathedral in Jolo town in Sulu province early this year. The attacks, carried out by an Indonesian couple, had killed and injured dozens of people, mostly soldiers guarding the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on January 27.

The attacks on the church occurred 2 years after hundreds of Abu Sayyaf and pro-ISIS militants and civilian supporters took over Marawi City in Lanao del Sur province. The city was recovered by troops after 5 months of house-to-house and close-quarter battle that killed and wounded hundreds of soldiers, militants and innocent civilians trapped in Marawi.

In July 2018, a Moroccan ISIS suicide bomber, Abu Katheer al Maghribi, also detonated a van filled with explosives in Lamitan City in Basilan province, about 35 nautical miles south of Zamboanga.

Philippine authorities said 11 people were killed in the explosion at a security checkpoint after government militias stopped the suspicious vehicle in Bulanting village, about 2 kilometers away from downtown Lamitan.

The powerful explosion obliterated the vehicle and left a huge crater and among those killed were a woman and a child; and the militia commander whose unit is under the supervision of the army. Five soldiers and several civilians were also wounded in the explosion. The bomber came from a nearby town and heading to downtown Lamitan when his vehicle was stopped at the checkpoint.

Duterte’s warning came after ISIS suicide bombers struck churches and hotels in Sri Lanka that killed over 300 people on Easter Sunday.

Tight Security

Zamboanga Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco Salazar said security is tight in the city and assured locals that police and military forces are in heightened alert. “We heightened the security in the city of Zamboanga and we continue to maintain a heightened level of alert as a pre-emptive measure following the Sri Lanka bombings,” she said.

Police said it is maintaining a high level of alert in Zamboanga, especially in places of worships, according to its spokesperson, Captain Shellamae Chang.

“Even before the Sri Lanka incidents, security forces have always secured places of worship in the city, deploying personnel in mosques on Friday, and for churches every Sunday. It is not just Christians and Muslims watching themselves, we watch over each other,” Chang said, citing the contribution of Christian and Muslim volunteer groups that help watch over each other in their respective places of worship.

City Disaster Risk Reduction Management Officer Dr. Elmeir Apolinario said the local government and security forces conduct a series of meetings to thresh out details of a security group charged with securing churches and mosques following directives from Salazar.

Dubbed as pastoral security group, Apolinario said it is composed of members of security forces and leaders of different religious organizations to assure and assist in the protection of the worshipers. (The Zamboanga Post)

 

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