‘Fight was leading us nowhere’: former Abu Sayyaf militants speak after surrender to Philippines forces 

A soldier stands guard in Marawi City, where a five-month operation to reclaim the city has seen  a decline in ASG-related incidents. (Reuters/File Photo)
A soldier stands guard in Marawi City, where a five-month operation to reclaim the city has seen a decline in ASG-related incidents. (Reuters/File Photo)
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Updated 25 March 2022

‘Fight was leading us nowhere’: former Abu Sayyaf militants speak after surrender to Philippines forces 

A soldier stands guard in Marawi City, where a five-month operation to reclaim the city has seen  a decline in ASG-related incidents. (Reuters/File Photo)
  • Decline in incidents related to Abu Sayyaf Group observed since 2017, when a military crackdown on its leadership intensified
  • Philippine government has stepped up programs designed to encourage surrenders among militants

JOLO, Sulu: Former fighters from one of the most dangerous militant outfits in the Philippines have claimed that they no longer believed their fight was worth it. They were speaking as local army officers report a fall in the number of active members in the organisation, the Abu Sayyaf Group.

The ASG was formed in 1991 as a splinter group of the Moro National Liberation Front, which seeks autonomy for Filipino Muslims in the southern Philippines. Initially influenced by Al-Qaeda, since the early 2000s it has been notorious for assassinations, extortion and kidnappings — often beheading hostages if a ransom was not paid. Often described as a criminal gang whose activity is more profit-driven than ideological, ASG was behind many violent incidents between 2011 and 2018. In 2014, some of its factions pledged allegiance to Daesh.

There has been a decline in ASG-related incidents since 2017, following a five-month operation to reclaim the city of Marawi in the southern Philippines, where militants affiliated with Daesh had taken control, and the subsequent crackdown on the ASG leadership.  

Since 2018, the Philippine government has stepped up programs designed to encourage ASG members to surrender.  

Data from the 11th Infantry Division, a Philippine army unit designated to fight militancy in southwestern Sulu island — the stronghold of ASG — shows that the number of militants active in the area has decreased from about 300 in 2019 to an estimated 100.

In an interview at a military facility in Jolo, capital of Sulu province, former fighters who are cooperating with the army spoke to Arab News about why they left the organization.

“Our fight was leading us nowhere,” said Faizal Umadjadi, now 21, who joined ASG in 2012. According to the military, he was involved in at least four encounters with government troops, the first time in 2014. Many ASG recruits come from local communities where the militants have their hideouts.

“I ran away from home, I didn’t listen to my parents,” Umadjadi said.

Six years later, the decision to surrender came during one of his meetings with family. “My parents cried a lot, so I thought I wouldn’t go back (to ASG), because I felt sorry for them,” he said. “They said there is no chance that we (ASG) can beat the government and it’s leading us nowhere.”

Arab Abdulmain Yousoff, 29, said he also chose family over combat eventually. It took him 10 years to make the decision. Military documentation shows he was a sub-leader in the group. He claimed he was close to Radullan Sahiron — ASG’s leader and one of its first members, who remains at large with a $1 million bounty on his head. Yousoff joined the group in 2010, following a promise that he would earn money from kidnaping for ransoms. In ASG, he was responsible for transporting and guarding hostages. He was involved in nine operations against government forces. At the same time, his elder brother, a soldier, was fighting ASG.

“My mother had a stroke because of me,” he said. “When there was a war in Marawi, that’s when my mother started to become ill. My brother was fighting in Marawi. My family said ‘if you still want to see your mother alive, it’s up to you. If you don’t want to see her alive anymore, it’s still up to you.’”

For Bennajar Jalmaani, recruited at the age of 15 in 2014, it was the ASG’s brutality toward hostages that he said made him want to leave. He started in reconnaissance and organizing food supplies. Military records show he was also involved in combat and participated in four encounters with the army.

He was with the group when it abducted two Canadians, a Norwegian and a Filipina from the Holiday Oceanview Resort on the island of Samal in Davao del Norte in 2015. The hostages were later taken to the jungles of Jolo island. He was also there when the Canadians were decapitated in 2016, after $6.4 million in ransom was not paid.

“When they beheaded the hostages, that’s when I decided to get out,” he said. He surrendered last year and now makes charcoal for a living. Like others who gave up arms, he receives assistance from the government to keep his family. This week alone, nine ASG members followed in his footsteps, and surrendered to the Joint Task Force Sulu.

Col. Giovanni Franza, who leads the Army 1102nd Brigade which received them, said the decision showed they wanted to return to “normal lives.” “We in the government are here to help you live normally,” he added in a message to those who remain within the group. “Take this opportunity to return to the folds of the law.”


On remote Bangladeshi island, Rohingya refugee children find healing in art

On remote Bangladeshi island, Rohingya refugee children find healing in art
Updated 9 sec ago

On remote Bangladeshi island, Rohingya refugee children find healing in art

On remote Bangladeshi island, Rohingya refugee children find healing in art
  • Bangladeshi cartoonist Syed Rashad Imam Tanmoy engaged refugees in drawing mural
  • He asked kids in Bhasan Char to picture their lives, fears, dreams

DHAKA: When Sona Maher’s family escaped a military crackdown in Myanmar, they arrived in Bangladesh with nothing but the clothes they were wearing, and the images of blood and destruction she is still trying to forget.

The 14-year-old is one of more than 1 million Muslim Rohingya who in 2017 fled persecution, rape, and death at the hands of the Myanmar army.

Most of them found safety in neighboring Bangladesh, of which a southeastern part has since become the world’s largest refugee settlement.

Initially settled in the squalid camps of Cox’s Bazar, Meher’s family last year joined a group of nearly 30,000 Rohingya who Bangladeshi authorities have relocated to Bhasan Char, a remote island in the Bay of Bengal.

Before and when the relocation started, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and rights groups criticized the project on the grounds of safety and Bhasan Char’s livability, as it is prone to severe weather and flooding. But it is also where Maher and other children found solace — in art.

“I witnessed the atrocities by the Myanmar military in my neighborhood in Rakhine. Houses were burnt down, people were killed brutally all around me,” she told Arab News.

“I remember those horrific days and sometimes try to show those incidents in my drawings. I forget the pain when I see the colors of my drawings. It inspires me to hope for a new life, new dreams. I want to get rid of those horrible memories. Life is better now.”

Maher took part in an art project run by Bangladeshi cartoonist Syed Rashad Imam Tanmoy and the UNHCR, and art education NGO Artolution, who asked Rohingya children to picture their lives, fears, and dreams in a huge wall painting.

It took eight days, 50 participants, and long hours of consultation to complete the 50-meter-long mural last month.

“It was not just another pretty picture on the wall. We wanted to offer mental healing through art therapy with the engagement of the community,” Tanmoy told Arab News.

“Initially we experienced some reluctance … At this point, we started the paintings with brushes and colors. A few Rohingyas came forward to watch the process.”

Soon, they too began to paint.

A dominant motif appearing in their drawings was a boat.

“Most of the Rohingyas came up with the idea of drawing boats,” Tanmoy said. “They hold their dreams of returning to their homeland, and of a journey toward a better future.”

For those who participated in the project, such as 17-year-old Anowar Sadek, expressing themselves through art came with some sense of solace.

“Whenever I hold the painting materials, it helps me forget the agonies I witnessed earlier in Rakhine,” he said. “The paintings give me much comfort and pleasure.”

But both the children and art educators know that the comfort will be only temporary as long as they remain without a place that they can call home. And isolation in Bhasan Char also adds to their distress.

“My heart filled with joy when I painted the wall with colors … I want to continue painting throughout my life,” Roksana Akter, a 12-year-old who joined the mural project, said.

“But I have many friends and relatives in Cox’s Bazar. I didn’t see them for a long time. It’s the saddest part of my life at this moment.”


Air raid warning issued over all Ukraine – Ukrainian officials

Air raid warning issued over all Ukraine – Ukrainian officials
Updated 1 min 43 sec ago

Air raid warning issued over all Ukraine – Ukrainian officials

Air raid warning issued over all Ukraine – Ukrainian officials
  • Border service: ‘An overall air raid alert is in place in Ukraine. Go to shelters’

Air raid alerts were issued across all of Ukraine on Thursday following warnings by Ukrainian officials that Russia was preparing a new wave of missile and drone strikes.
“An overall air raid alert is in place in Ukraine. Go to shelters,” country’s border service wrote on Telegram messaging app.


Biden should stop arms shipments to far-right Israeli govt, ex-diplomats say

Biden should stop arms shipments to far-right Israeli govt, ex-diplomats say
Updated 42 min 24 sec ago

Biden should stop arms shipments to far-right Israeli govt, ex-diplomats say

Biden should stop arms shipments to far-right Israeli govt, ex-diplomats say
  • Washington Post op-ed calls for ‘unprecedented’ action to curb annexation of West Bank, support two-state solution
  • Daniel Kurtzer, Aaron David Miller warn US: ‘Have no dealings with Ben-Gvir, Smotrich’

LONDON: US President Joe Biden has been urged by two former diplomats to halt arms shipments to Israel if the weapons are used in an offensive capacity against Palestinians.

Describing the incoming administration of Benjamin Netanyahu as “the most extreme government in the history of the state,” Daniel Kurtzer, a former US ambassador to Israel, and Aaron David Miller, a US Middle East peace negotiator, wrote in the Washington Post that Biden should take the “unprecedented and controversial” decision to reconsider Washington’s military support for Israel.

They warned that Netanyahu’s government could seek to annex or “change the status of the West Bank,” and “build infrastructure for settlers that is designed to foreclose the possibility of a two-state solution,” adding: “Israel should be told that, while the US will continue to support its ally’s legitimate security requirements, it will not provide offensive weapons or other assistance for malign Israeli actions in Jerusalem or the occupied territories.”

The pair also wrote that Biden should end Washington’s protection of Israel in international diplomatic forums, such as the UN Security Council, where it regularly vetoes motions that criticize Israel.

They said this break with protocol was justified as Netanyahu had “brought to life the radical, racist, misogynistic and homophobic far-right parties” to form his coalition, including Itamar Ben-Gvir as national security minister, whom they described as a “convicted inciter of hatred and violence” who will have “far-reaching authority for the West Bank, Jerusalem and mixed Arab-Jewish cities in Israel proper” as part of his remit.

The elevation of Bezalel Smotrich to a potential role overseeing the Civil Administration was also criticized given that he “has called for the expulsion of Arabs” and will have a say in the running of the West Bank.

“Biden should also make it clear to Israel that his administration will have no dealings with Ben-Gvir, Smotrich or their ministries if they continue to espouse racist policies and actions,” Kurtzer and Miller said.

“For a US president to put pressure on a democratically elected Israeli government would be unprecedented and controversial. But Israel has never before embarked on such a dangerous course. Political will matters, and this is a moment for Biden to show American strength and resolve.”

Ben-Gvir’s presence in the government has drawn widespread criticism at home and abroad, with outgoing Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz warning that the US-armed Israeli border police could be used as a “private army” in the occupied territories.

The Washington Post article added that the White House should not focus solely on Israel, adding that the administration need to apply pressure the Palestinians to “curb violence and terrorism,” and pave the way to holding open and fair elections.


China eases some COVID-19 controls

China eases some COVID-19 controls
Updated 01 December 2022

China eases some COVID-19 controls

China eases some COVID-19 controls
  • Major cities are easing testing requirements and controls on movement
  • With a heavy police presence, there is no indication of protests

BEIJING: More Chinese cities eased some anti-virus restrictions as police patrolled their streets to head off protests Thursday while the ruling Communist Party prepared for the high-profile funeral of late leader Jiang Zemin.
Guangzhou in the south, Shijiazhuang in the north, Chengdu in the southwest and other major cities announced they were easing testing requirements and controls on movement. In some areas, markets and bus service reopened.
The announcements didn’t mention last weekend’s protests in Shanghai, Beijing and at least six other cities against the human cost of anti-virus restrictions that confine millions of people to their homes. But the timing and publicity suggested President Xi Jinping’s government was trying to mollify public anger after some protesters made the politically explosive demand that Xi resign.
With a heavy police presence, there was no indication of protests. Notes on social media complained that people were being stopped at random for police to check smartphones, possibly looking for prohibited apps such as Twitter, in what they said was a violation of China’s Constitution.
“I am especially afraid of becoming the ‘Xinjiang model’ and being searched on the excuse of walking around,” said a posting signed Qi Xiaojin on the popular Sina Weibo platform, referring to the northwestern region where Uyghur and other Muslim minorities are under intense surveillance.
Protesters have used Twitter and other foreign social media to publicize protests while the Communist Party deletes videos and photos from services within China.
On Thursday, the government reported 36,061 new coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours, including 31,911 without symptoms.
Meanwhile, Beijing was preparing for the funeral of Jiang, who was ruling party leader until 2002 and president until the following year. The party announced he died Wednesday in Shanghai of leukemia and multiple organ failure.
No foreign dignitaries will be invited in line with Chinese tradition, the party announced. It has yet to set a date for the funeral or announce how it might be affected by anti-virus controls.
Xi’s government has promised to reduce the disruption of its “zero COVID-19” strategy by shortening quarantines and making other changes. But it says it will stick to restrictions that have repeatedly shut down schools and businesses and suspended access to neighborhoods.
The protests began Friday after at least 10 people were killed in a fire in an apartment building in Urumqi in Xinjiang. That prompted questions about whether firefighters or victims trying to escape were blocked by locked doors or other controls. Authorities denied that, but the deaths became a focus for public frustration.
The government says it is making restrictions more targeted and flexible, but a spike in infections since October has prompted local officials who are threatened with the loss of their jobs if an outbreak occurs to impose controls that some residents say are excessive and destructive.


Spain steps up security as Prime Minister’s office targeted in spate of letter-bombs

Spain steps up security as Prime Minister’s office targeted in spate of letter-bombs
Updated 01 December 2022

Spain steps up security as Prime Minister’s office targeted in spate of letter-bombs

Spain steps up security as Prime Minister’s office targeted in spate of letter-bombs
  • An “envelope with pyrotechnic material” addressed to Sanchez was received on Nov. 24
  • The device was “similar” to subsequent packages sent to Ukrainian embassy, a Spanish arms firm and air force base

MADRID: Spain has stepped up security at public and diplomatic buildings after a spate of letter-bombs were sent to targets including the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and the Ukrainian embassy, the Interior Ministry said on Thursday.
The ministry said that an “envelope with pyrotechnic material” addressed to Sanchez was received on Nov. 24 and disarmed by his security team.
The device was “similar” to subsequent packages received by the Ukrainian embassy and a Spanish arms firm on Wednesday, it said, and a device intercepted at Spain’s Torrejon de Ardoz air force base in the early hours of Thursday morning.
The first letter-bomb was received and opened by a security officer at the Ukrainian embassy on Wednesday lunchtime and exploded, causing minor injuries to the official.
Ambassador Serhii Pohoreltsev told the Ukrainian news site European Pravda that the suspicious package addressed to him was handed to the embassy’s Ukrainian commandant.
“The package contained a box, which raised the commandant’s suspicions and he decided to take it outside – with no one in the vicinity – and open it,” Pohoreltsev was quoted as saying.
“After opening the box and hearing a click that followed, he tossed it and then heard the explosion...Despite not holding the box at the time of the explosion, the commandant hurt his hands and received a concussion.”
EU SATELLITE CENTRE ALSO TARGETED
After the first incident, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba ordered all of Kyiv’s embassies abroad to “urgently” strengthen security and urged Spain to investigate the attack, a Ukrainian ministry spokesperson said.
A second package was confirmed to have been received on Wednesday night at the headquarters of Spanish weapons manufacturer, Instalaza in Zaragoza, in northeastern Spain, police said.
Instalaza manufactures the C90 rocket launcher that Spain has supplied to Ukraine.
Spanish security forces found a third suspected explosive device hidden in an envelope mailed to a European Union satellite center located at an air force base in Torrejon de Ardoz, outside Madrid, the defense ministry said.
After scanning the envelope by X-ray, air force security officers determined it contained “a mechanism,” the ministry statement said.
The satellite center supports the EU’s common foreign and security policy by gathering information from space intelligence devices, according to its website. EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell described such systems as “the eyes of Europe” in September.
Spanish newspaper El Mundo reported that another device had been sent to Spain’s Ministry of Defense in Madrid, but this has not yet been confirmed by the authorities.
Spain’s High Court, which specializes in terrorism offenses, has opened a probe into the attack.