MANILA, January 14, 2003 (STAR)  By Sheila Crisostomo  - US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone Jr. brushed aside yesterday Philippine protests over the latest advisory issued by the US State Department.

"Itís accurate," he said, adding that the advisory was "moderate" compared with the previous one.

The Philippines, however, is seeking to persuade the US to amend what Manila has branded as a "reckless" travel alert for Americans to avoid certain parts of the Philippines because of security risks.

Ricciardone said the latest advisory is "accurate... compared to the most recent update, itís actually ó from your perspective ó better. I would say itís always as accurate as we could make them."

He told members of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines that the latest advisory was "shorter" and that the US government had "removed some of the factual material that was negative."

In the advisory, the US State Department urged Americans in the Philippines to "exercise great caution and maintain heightened security awareness," citing the possibility of terrorism, kidnapping, and other criminal activities.

The advisory will remain in effect until July.

The advisory claimed Washington was concerned about the possibility of attacks similar to the bombing last October in Bali, Indonesia that killed nearly 200 people, a majority of them Australian tourists.

The State Department specifically warned US citizens against traveling to certain parts of southern Mindanao because of incidents of kidnappings, bombings and other acts of violence.

It said Americans should also avoid the islands of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, where the Abu Sayyaf bandits operate.

The US has linked the Abu Sayyaf, an Islamist group, to Osama bin Ladenís al-Qaeda network.

The Americans were also advised to avoid crowded bars, nightclubs and restaurant areas which could be targeted by terror groups.

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye had branded the travel advisory as "reckless" as it "completely disregarded efforts to maintain peace and order in the country."

Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople, on the other hand, said that the advisory was "uncalled for." He complained that the US government did not take into account the present peace and order situation in the country.

Ricciardone, however, maintained that the US government has a "travel information sheet" distributed around the world and which is updated regularly.

He said the latest advisory was "very balanced and a moderate statement that encourages people to take due care, as they should take in any country, and donít go in places where most Filipinos would not go."

Ricciardone added that advisories are only meant to provide "factual information for responsible people to make their own decision."

He noted that the advisory does not cover other areas in the Philippines, like Ifugao province in the north, where he and his family spent the holidays.

Meanwhile, a ranking Philippine official, who asked not to be identified, said the government is taking steps "but we donít want to telegraph our moves."

Other officials, reacting to the advisory, said it is without sufficient ground because of the greatly improved peace and order situation in the country.

Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesman Lt. Col. Danilo Servando said that while the US is within its rights to protect its citizens, the warning does not have enough basis in fact.

"So far we at the AFP donít feel there is sufficient grounds for that," Servando said, citing the inroads the military has achieved in its fight against various groups posing a threat to peace and order, especially in the southern Philippines.

The AFP, according to Servando, achieved its primary goal against the Abu Sayyaf.

"As compared to the previous year, the situation right now has greatly improved. There was a dramatic improvement as far as peace and order in Western Mindanao is concerned," he said.

Servando noted that "except in Sulu, we can say we have dramatically decimated the main group of the Abu Sayyaf." AFP forces in Sulu still report that they have had a few encounters with Abu Sayyaf bandits.

He added that the AFP has stabilized the situation in Basilan province.

Contrary to Servandoís claims, a US officer commanding American troops in Western Mindanao also said they still consider the Abu Sayyaf a threat to them.

Col. Douglas Lengenfelder said that he and his troops are closely coordinating with the military "to protect our soldiers."

The Philippine National Police (PNP), meanwhile, said that the peace and order situation in the country is better than that of the US.

PNP chief Director General Hermogenes Ebdane said the issuance of the US travel advisory is "unfortunate," but stopped short of saying that security arrangements are better here because there are no drive-by shootings, compared to the incidents perpetrated by snipers in Washington, DC that killed almost a dozen people.

"It is unfortunate that there is such a travel advisory. I think it is high time that we look into the situation of every country. Ang tanong ko lang, sa Pilipinas ay meron bang drive-by shooting? We have none. That is it," he said.

Ebdane noted that it was not necessary for the US State Department to issue such an advisory.

"Of course, what they have are the reports that might not even be true," he said.

PNP director for operations Deputy Director General Edgar Aglipay urged countries that issue travel advisories against the Philippines to reassess their moves.

Aglipay, who is also Mindanao area commander, said the US advisory is contrary to what is really happening.

"We are asking those countries that are giving travel advisories like this to reassess their travel advisory by (finding out) what is happening on the ground," he said.

Ebdane said the PNP has yet to see any report on renewed terror attacks in the country.

He appealed to the media not to highlight unconfirmed reports on alleged terror plots because these are picked up by the international community, even if they are without basis.

Down but not out

Despite the US travel advisory, Tourism Secretary Richard Gordon is determined to promote the country as a safe tourist destination.

"The tourism industry, though hurt, will not die," Gordon said. "The Philippines is determined to give the best to travelers and ensure their full protection while in the country."

With the measures being taken by the military and police against terrorism, Gordon is confident that the situation will improve since travel advisories are renewed every three months.

"We respect the view of these countries on their moral and social responsibility to protect their citizens," Gordon said.

Gordon noted that the PNP has deployed an additional 5,670 policemen nationwide, 1,000 of whom have been designated as tourist police in Metro Manila.

He added that all beach resorts have a security plan in place, in coordination with the PNP, AFP, and local government units.

Meanwhile, Sen. Aquilino Pimentel said the US is "out of touch with reality" because it issued a travel advisory that practically dissuades Americans from visiting the Philippines.

Pimentel said the advisory is "uncalled for and unfair" and dared Washington to withdraw the advisory, if only to prove that it remains a friend of the Philippines.

"Unfortunately, the Philippines is being made a punching bag by the US travel advisory, as if we are a haven of mad killers. No doubt there are criminals in the Philippines as there are criminals in the US. But to constantly picture the Philippines as unsafe is uncalled for and unfair," he said.

Pimentelís local political rival, Cagayan de Oro City Mayor Vicente Emano said the latest advisories issued by the US and Australia are "most cruel, most unkind."

Emano said he was surprised to learn that the Australian travel advisory included Cagayan de Oro City "because they know we are very peaceful here and in Region 10."

Canberra warned its citizens last week not to travel to several Mindanao cities and provinces, including the Northern Mindanao cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan, citing "threats against Australians and Australian interests in the Philippines are high."

City Councilor Alvin Calingin, however, said Australia has no reason to include the city in its advisory because threats against Australians or foreigners are nonexistent.

Emano said that travel advisories will not affect the cityís economic boom, noting that several government officials from Belgium and Germany are scheduled to visit the city in March to look for investment opportunities.

Executives of South Korea-based Samsung and Eximbank and South Koreaís finance minister will visit Cagayan de Oro City next week to assess the Laguindingan International Airport project as well as look for appropriate businesses in which to invest.

Department of Tourism director for Northern Mindanao Dorothy Jean Palayo also dismissed the US and Australian travel advisories, saying these will have little or no effect on tourist arrivals in Region 10.

"Their citizens who have visited us here in the region know the real situation here," she told The STAR in a telephone interview.

For her part, Lanao del Norte Gov. Imelda Dimaporo said that among the Muslim provinces in the country today, Lanao del Norte is the most peaceful.

She said they have precautionary measures against terrorism in place, adding that Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) 303rd Brigadeís Abdurahman Macapaar Ė better known as Commander Bravo Ė had promised her "they wonít make any disturbance in the province" similar to what happened in 2000.

The government launched an all-out war against the MILF when Bravo took over Kauswagan townís seat of government, taking more than 300 employees and visitors hostage. ó Jaime Laude, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Bong Fabe

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