SULU, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / Jan. 28, 2008) – Suspected Abu Sayyaf militants on Monday kidnapped a female trader in the southern Philippine province of Sulu.
Gunmen seized the trader outside her house in Jolo town at around 5.30 p.m. Monday and relatives were said to be negotiating for her safe release. It was unknown whether the kidnappers demanded ransom.
The woman, who buys and sells Malaysian goods in Jolo, is a Filipino Muslim with Chinese ancestry.
But government intelligence reports said two other women were kidnapped Monday in Jolo town, although their names were not immediately known. The reports said the women were being held in the hinterlands near Patikul town.
The kidnappings came ahead of a joint RP-US military training in Sulu. US and Philippine troops are set to begin this month the Balikatan 2008, codename for the annual joint anti-terror training. Hundreds of US troops are deployed in Sulu since last year where they also held an anti-terror training with local soldiers.
Last week, Abu Sayyaf gunmen shot and killed a man while eating on a roadside restaurant in Jolo town. Gunmen shot in the man in the head.
One Muslim trader, suspected of helping the government's anti-insurgency operation, was also kidnapped in Jolo last Tuesday and briefly held him in Patikul town. He was tortured before being freed, his relatives said.
Abu Sayyaf also held several passengers of a commuter van at a highway near Patikul town last week, but freed all of them after one of the victims turned out to be a Muslim cleric. But the group seized a local engineer and freed his after he allegedly paid money in the village of Taung in Patikul town, a known stronghold of the militant group ties to al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiya.
The heightened Abu Sayyaf activity on Sulu began when the military ordered thousands of infantrymen, including an army brigade, deployed to Lanao province on January 18. Only two marine brigades, composed of about 5,000 soldiers and a few hundred army troops, are left to quell a growing insurgency and terrorism, especially at a time that peace is slowly returning to Sulu.
Provincial government officials fear the Abu Sayyaf may be active again after months of silence. Officials were worried about the implications of the kidnapping and new threats of terrorism to Sulu's economy and the peace and order situation at a time the province is being promoted as a new cultural and tourism destination in southern Philippines.
Sulu has recently embarked on a tourism campaign called "Visit Sulu 2008" in an effort to attract visitors and investments in the province, whose pristine beaches, dive sites and beautiful tropical islands are one of its attractions.
Village leaders were also asking the military to send additional troops to Sulu to address the threats of the Abu Sayyaf, blamed on the spate of terrorism and kidnappings in the province, about 950 kilometers south of Manila.
Last week, Sulu launched its own version of the citizen ID system in Patikul town aimed at protecting villagers against terrorism. Mayors and business groups and citizens supported the ID system which will eventually launch in other towns. Sulu is one of five provinces under the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. (Mindanao Examiner)