MANILA, July 8, 2013 (PHILSTAR) By Helen Flores (The Philippine Star) | Updated July 7, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - American nationals in the Philippines have been advised by their government to continue taking “extreme caution” when traveling to Sulu due to kidnapping threats as well as insurgency-related violence.

“US citizens should continue to defer non-essential travel to the Sulu archipelago, due to the high threat of kidnapping of international travelers and violence linked to insurgency and terrorism there,” said a US embassy travel alert released on Friday.

Australia and Canada also issued warnings on Wednesday about new threats of kidnapping and terrorism in Mindanao.

The US advisory also noted greater police presence in Cotabato City, Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat due to a prevailing state of emergency.

Throughout Mindanao, criminal groups have clashed sporadically with government troops particularly in rural areas, while terrorists have kidnapped international travelers and carried out deadly bombings, the advisory said.

However, the US embassy said security situation in urban centers of Davao City, General Santos City, and Cagayan de Oro City are generally more controlled.

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Nevertheless, US embassy employees are under instructions to first secure special authorization before traveling to any part of Mindanao, particularly the Sulu archipelago.

American citizens traveling to or residing in the Philippines are also advised to review the Department of State’s Country Specific Information for the Philippines or tap its Traveler Enrollment Program for detailed information and updates. “US citizens traveling in the region are encouraged to stay up to date on conditions across the globe by bookmarking the Bureau of Consular Affairs website, which contains the current Travel Warnings and Travel Alerts as well as the Worldwide Caution,” it said.

“The Department of State remains concerned about the continuing threat of terrorist actions and violence against US citizens and interests throughout the world. The department’s current message recommending Worldwide Caution reminds US citizens that terrorism can occur anywhere,” the US embassy said.

The Philippine National Police, through Senior Superintendent Reuben Sindac, said it was not aware of any specific threat against Americans in Mindanao.

Mindanao and surrounding islands are a hotbed of various armed groups including communist guerrillas, bandits, Muslim insurgents and the al-Qaeda linked Abu Sayyaf.

Founded using seed money from al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, the Abu Sayyaf had kidnapped dozens of foreigners for ransom.

In 2001, the group abducted three American tourists among a group of hostages from a resort in Palawan, leading to the deaths of two of the Americans.

US troops have been operating in Mindanao on rotational basis for more than a decade to help train local troops in hunting down members of the Abu Sayyaf, which is on the US government’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Tourism chief unfazed

Asked if the latest travel alerts would set back efforts to lure more foreign travelers to the country, Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez said “not really.”

“The advisories are specific to certain areas and do not include the hugely successful markets like Davao and other great places,” Jimenez told The STAR.

Before Friday’s advisory, the US embassy had advised US citizens residing or planning to visit Zamboanga “to re-evaluate their personal safety situation and consider postponing travel to this area at this time,” citing threats of kidnapping and terrorism.

Canada, Australia and the US are among the top 12 countries whose citizens frequently visit the Philippines. The US ranks second while Australia and Canada are 6th and 8th, respectively.

The travel alerts came after the DOT reported a record rise in foreign tourists arrivals for the first five months of 2013.

For the period January to May, international arrivals reached 2.011 million, up 10.54 percent from the same period last year.

“It is noteworthy to highlight that this is the first time in Philippine history that we reached the two-million mark in the first five months of the year,” the DOT chief said.

For May alone, arrivals rose by 12.47 percent to 362,062 from 321,920 in the same month last year.

The latest tourist arrival figures have boosted DOT’s confidence in meeting its target of 10 million arrivals by 2016. – Donnabelle Gatdula

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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