Palawan locals sign up vs Abus

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Puerto Princesa Underground River and National Park (INQUIRER FILE PHOTO)

Puerto Princesa Underground River and National Park (INQUIRER FILE PHOTO)

PUERTO PRINCESA CITY— Dozens of civilians have signed up for volunteer patrols to protect against a reported plan by the Abu Sayyaf to kidnap tourists visiting Palawan’s famed tourist spots, including a subterranean river, officials said on Thursday.

A total of 228 volunteers, mostly boatmen, helpers and village officials in communities surrounding the Puerto Princesa Underground River park have signed up for the patrols under military supervision, said Jan Elmer Badilla, a spokesperson for the park management.

“Also, park rangers have been conducting their own patrols to guard the entry points from the sea,” Badilla said.

Tess Austria, chair of the Sabang Sea Ferry Multipurpose Cooperative and one of the volunteers, said she wanted to join the patrols herself.

“We know that community participation is important, just like what happened in Bohol, to prevent terrorist attacks,” she said.

Austria was referring to a foiled plan by the Abu Sayyaf to seize tourists in the central island of Bohol last month, largely because community members alerted authorities to the presence of the armed men.

At least nine militants were killed in separate clashes, including Muamar Askali alias Abu Rami, whose Abu Sayyaf faction was blamed for the beheadings of foreign hostages, including German yachtsman Jürgen Kantner in February and two Canadians seized last year.

The military’s Western Command earlier beefed up security around the park, including the deployment of additional Philippine Marines personnel and the creation of a joint task force among several law enforcement agencies.

The US Embassy in Manila earlier warned its citizens of possible abductions by the Abu Sayyaf visiting the island, particularly the Underground River.

Senior Supt. Ronnie Francis Cariaga, regional police director of Mimaropa (Mindoro, Marinduque, Romblon, Palawan), inspected the Sabang wharf on Wednesday night and met with local officials to discuss security measures here.

Visits to the Underground River had already begun to dip, and travel agents were bracing for a long-term negative impact of the travel restrictions. Among those that canceled their booking was a contingent from the Philippine Military Academy.

“Although we are doing our best to prevent this crisis from worsening, we are expecting that tourist arrivals will be affected. Worse, we will have an earlier lean season. We can just take advantage of this time to conduct training and seminars for the park staff,” Badilla added.

In Manila, presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella said troops have been placed on a heightened state of alert and were coordinating closely with the police and the coastguard.

“All units and assets are being utilized to ensure maximum security to deny any terrorist group’s entry and access in the high seas and coastal areas,” he said. People could help the authorities maintain peace and order by being vigilant, he said.

Before departing for an overseas trip on Wednesday, President Duterte said he had ordered security forces to “shoot them on sight,” referring to the Abu Sayyaf.

“Kill them. Do not waste your bullets and then we take care of them in the hospital. Expend your bullet to finish the problem because it is really a problem. It is a problem of security, law and order,” Mr. Duterte said. —WITH A REPORT FROM LEILA B. SALAVERRIA

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