Recovering from militancy, southern Philippine province pins hopes on tourism

Soldiers enjoy the view on the white-sand Tanduh beach in the municipality of Parang, Sulu. (AN Photo)
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Soldiers enjoy the view on the white-sand Tanduh beach in the municipality of Parang, Sulu. (AN Photo)
Tanduh beach, as seen in this photo taken on March 17, is among Sulu province's
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Tanduh beach, as seen in this photo taken on March 17, is among Sulu province's "most promising areas" to develop tourism. (AN Photo) 
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Updated 16 April 2022

Recovering from militancy, southern Philippine province pins hopes on tourism

Recovering from militancy, southern Philippine province pins hopes on tourism
  • Southwestern Sulu province recovering from unrest that began in the late 1960s
  • Scenic island chain has been a stronghold of the notorious Abu Sayyaf Group

JOLO, SULU: After decades of conflict and militant unrest, Sulu in the southwestern Philippines is pinning its hopes on visitors returning as the scenic island province finally enjoys a return to peace.

The province, with more than 150 islets, forms part of the Sulu archipelago, stretching from the tip of the Zamboanga Peninsula in the north to the island of Borneo in the south. Most of Sulu’s population of 1 million are Muslim.

In the late 1960s the region began to experience unrest, which triggered the rise of groups seeking autonomy for Filipino Muslims in the southern Philippines.

During decades of armed conflict with government forces, some separatist factions turned to criminal activity, including the Abu Sayyaf Group, which since the early 2000s has gained notoriety for extortion, assassinations and kidnappings for ransom, especially in areas neighboring Sulu, the group’s stronghold.

It took years for the military to crack down on the group and finally bring a relative sense of safety and hopes for development.

“Sulu is far better today,” Julkiram Arastam, Sulu provincial tourism officer, told Arab News in a recent interview in Jolo city, the capital of the province.

“Ten years ago, we could only dream that one day peace and order would no longer be a problem in Sulu, and it would be able to show the world how beautiful it is.”

Arastam knows it will take some time before investment arrives and the province can create proper tourism infrastructure.

“We are still in the process of image building, changing the bad perception of Sulu,” he said.

Infrequent commercial flights began to reach the island only this year, and only on small aircraft from Zamboanga City, about 150 kilometers away. 

“Commercial flights to Sulu are pretty new; it has a very limited capacity. But we’re hoping that additional aircraft, bigger ones, will also fly to Jolo,” Arastam said.

“We are improving our airport and we’re also dreaming that there will be a direct flight from Manila.”

His wish is that flights will start bringing groups of tourists. So far there are only a few visitors from local areas. Last month about 20 arrived, according to Arastam. But that is still better compared with none, which was the case not long ago.

“We are developing our potential in tourism,” he said.

“Everyone enjoys the beautiful scenery, and locals like us, or even visiting tourists from Manila, can go to other municipalities without fear, without the fear of militancy.”

The largest ethnic group in Sulu are the Tausug, who in the 15th century dominated the area and established a sultanate. The sultanate of Sulu had its center in Jolo and exercised authority over the island chain.

While little remains of the sultanate, and most of its important architecture was destroyed by a typhoon in the early 20th century, local authorities have placed all their eggs in one basket — the region’s natural beauty — hedging their bets that this alone will attract visitors.

Long stretches of white powdery sand lapped by turquoise waters and fringed by coconut groves are among the sites that the municipal task force to end local armed conflict has identified as the province’s “seven wonders,” and “most promising areas for both sea-based and eco-tourism development.”

All the locations are in Patikul and Panamao municipalities.

The “wonders” include the infinity pool-shaped Timpuok Lake, Bitih beach and Bakungan island, which authorities say are the best areas for canoeing, kayaking and snorkeling.

Tambanan Lagoon and the Walo-Walo island rock formation, both described as superb diving areas, and the white sand beaches of Su-uh and Taung are also major attractions.

“About three years ago, this used to be the engagement area between our military forces and the Abu Sayyaf Group,” Brig. Gen. Benjamin Batara, of the Army 1103rd Infantry Brigade, told Arab News at Timpuok Lake.

“Now a lot of people are coming here. This place has been promoted on social media and a lot of people are coming,” he said. “We just cleaned this place a few months ago so that people can get a better view of the entire scenery.”

The “wonders” also have the potential to change the lives of Sulu communities.

Opportunities to earn a livelihood are crucial to stopping community members from joining militants in the impoverished, underdeveloped region.

“The governor has been consistently calling on the people, especially the locals, that we should value the peaceful Sulu that everyone is enjoying now. What we are saying, especially to our fellow Tausug, is let us be vigilant in safeguarding our province. Let us not allow the situation in the province to return to how it was before,” Arastam said.

“We have started to personally feel peace in Sulu.”

The military also sees an increasing sense of safety among the province’s population.

“There is movement of people now, unlike before,” Maj. Gen. Ignatius Patrimonio, commander of the 11th Infantry Division, a unit designated to fight militancy in Sulu, told Arab News.

“The people of Sulu themselves are now enjoying the tourist destinations here.”

But the threat posed by militants is not completely gone, although many have surrendered to security forces.

According to the 11th Infantry Division, in 2019 there were about 300 members of the ASG active in the region. The number has since significantly decreased, but the military estimates that about 100 militants are still at large.

Patrimonio said that militants “still pose a threat for as long they are here.”

Yet he believes that will not last long as more decide to lay down arms.

“We’re seeing the demise of the Abu Sayyaf Group,” he said. “Soon.” 


US to send Ukraine longer-range bombs in latest turnaround

US to send Ukraine longer-range bombs in latest turnaround
Updated 03 February 2023

US to send Ukraine longer-range bombs in latest turnaround

US to send Ukraine longer-range bombs in latest turnaround
  • The longer-range bombs are the latest advanced system, such as Abrams tanks and the Patriot missile defense system, that the US has eventually agreed to provide Ukraine
  • Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, said Kyiv is prepared to offer guarantees to its Western partners that their weapons won’t be used to strike inside Russian territory

WASHINGTON: After months of agonizing, the US has agreed to send longer-range bombs to Ukraine as it prepares to launch a spring offensive to retake territory Russia captured last year, US officials said Thursday, confirming that the new weapons will have roughly double the range of any other offensive weapon provided by America.
The US will provide ground-launched small diameter bombs as part of a $2.17 billion aid package it is expected to announce Friday, several US officials said. The package also for the first time includes equipment to connect all the different air defense systems Western allies have rushed to the battlefield and integrate them into Ukraine’s own air defenses, to help it better defend against Russia’s missile attacks.
For months, US officials have hesitated to send longer-range systems to Ukraine out of concern that they would be used to target inside Russia, escalating the conflict and drawing the US deeper in. The longer-range bombs are the latest advanced system, such as Abrams tanks and the Patriot missile defense system, that the US has eventually agreed to provide Ukraine after initially saying no. US officials, though, have continued to reject Ukraine’s requests for fighter jets.
Ukrainian leaders have urgently pressed for longer-range munitions, and on Thursday officials said the US will send an undisclosed number of the ground-launched, small diameter bombs, which have a range of about 95 miles (150 kilometers). The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the aid package not yet made public.

To date, the longest-range missile provided by the US is about 50 miles (80 kilometers). The funding in the aid package is for longer-term purchases, so it wasn’t clear Thursday how long it will take to get the bomb to the battlefield in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, said Thursday the country is prepared to offer guarantees to its Western partners that their weapons won’t be used to strike inside Russian territory, adding that Kyiv needs weapons with a range of up to 300 kilometers ( about 185 miles) to expel the Russian forces.
“If we could strike at a distance of up to 300 kilometers, the Russian army wouldn’t be able to mount a defense and will have to withdraw,” Reznikov said at a meeting with EU officials. “Ukraine is ready to provide any guarantees that your weapons will not be involved in attacks on the Russian territory. We have enough targets in the occupied areas of Ukraine, and we’re prepared to coordinate on (these) targets with our partners.”
The US aid package includes $425 million in ammunition and support equipment that will be pulled from existing Pentagon stockpiles and $1.75 billion in new funding through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which is used to purchase new weapons from industry.
The assistance initiative, which will pay for the longer-range bombs and the air defense system integration, also funds two HAWK air defense systems, anti-aircraft guns and ammunition, and counter-drone systems.
Since Russia’s invasion last February, Western allies have pledged a myriad of air defense systems to Ukraine to bolster its own Soviet-made S-300 surface-to-air missile defense systems, and the latest aid package aims to provide the capability to integrate them all, which could improve Ukraine’s ability to protect itself against incoming Russian attacks.
The US has pledged medium- to long-range National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems, or NASAMS, and truck-launched short-range Avenger air defense systems; the Netherlands, Germany and the US are sending Patriot missile defense systems; Germany is sending medium-range IRIS-T air defense systems; and Spain is sending Aspide anti-aircraft air defense systems.
The addition of longer-range bombs to the latest aid package was first reported by Reuters.
Ukraine is still seeking F-16 fighter jets, which US President Joe Biden has opposed sending since the beginning of the war. Asked Monday if his administration was considering sending F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, Biden responded, “No.”
On Tuesday, the Ukrainian defense minister was asked if Biden’s ‘’no” to F-16s was the final word.
“All types of help first passed through the ‘no’ stage,” Reznikov said. “Which only means ‘no’ at today’s given moment. The second stage is, ‘Let’s talk and study technical possibilities.’ The third stage is, ‘Let’s get your personnel trained.’ And the fourth stage is the transfer (of equipment).”


UK Home Office orders Afghan refugees to uproot families and leave London within a week

UK Home Office orders Afghan refugees to uproot families and leave London within a week
Updated 02 February 2023

UK Home Office orders Afghan refugees to uproot families and leave London within a week

UK Home Office orders Afghan refugees to uproot families and leave London within a week
  • The 40 families have been living in a Kensington hotel for over a year but now must move to North Yorkshire
  • One of the refugees said the British government broke its promise to help find them find homes

LONDON: The UK Home Office has notified hundreds of Afghan refugees who have been living in London for 18 months that they must move 200 miles north to West Yorkshire within a week, the Guardian reported on Thursday.

They are among 9,000 Afghans who are living in temporary accommodation across the UK after fleeing the Taliban. They left their home country as part of Operation Pitting, which was launched in August 2021 to get British nationals and Afghans who had worked and fought alongside UK forces out of the country after the Taliban seized control.

“We will never forget the brave sacrifice made by Afghans who chose to work with us at great risk to themselves,” former Prime Minister Boris Johnson said at the time.

Now, the Home Office has told 40 families, including 150 children, who have been living in a hotel in Kensington for over a year that they must move to another hotel in Wetherby, near Leeds.

Some of the refugees, including a former general and translators who assisted British Army troops, told the Guardian that they are refusing to move because their children, who have already experienced great trauma, would now be forced to go through the upheaval of changing schools in the middle of the academic year.

Others have found jobs in London and are worried about giving them up and having to find work in a new location.

Most the Afghans living in the hotel have decided to protest against the relocation plan, one of the refugees told the Guardian.

Hamidullah Khan, a former parliamentary adviser in Kabul who came to the UK with his wife and three sons, said the government has broken a series of promises it made to refugees that it would assist them in finding permanent housing.

“We asked the Home Office, ‘Why do you want to force us out?’ and they say: ‘This hotel is expensive. The Leeds hotel is cheaper.’ But we didn’t choose this hotel or this area to live in, the Home Office did,” Khan said.

“Now we have been here, not out of choice, for 18 months. Our children are going to local schools and, in the middle of the school year, they ask us to leave.”

In Wetherby, meanwhile, some residents said they oppose the decision to move Afghan refugees into a local hotel. One person told the Leeds Live website that the government was acting in an “underhand and secretive” manner.

Under the UK’s Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act, the Home Office is obliged to “safeguard and promote the welfare of children when it makes any immigration decision.”

A Home Office spokesperson told the Guardian that the refugees were told months ago that they would have to move north.

“While hotels do not provide a long-term solution, they do offer safe, secure and clean accommodation,” the spokesperson said. “We will continue to bring down the number of people in bridging hotels, moving people into more sustainable accommodation as quickly as possible.

“Occasionally, families may be moved from a hotel scheduled for closure to another hotel. In these instances, families are given appropriate notice of a move and are supported by their local authority. We are proud this country has provided homes for more than 7,500 Afghan evacuees but there is a shortage of local housing accommodation for all.”

According to briefings given to local councils, the government aims to move all Afghan refugees into permanent accommodation by the end of the year.


House GOP votes to oust Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar from major committee

House GOP votes to oust Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar from major committee
Updated 02 February 2023

House GOP votes to oust Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar from major committee

House GOP votes to oust Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar from major committee
  • House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was able to solidify Republican support against the Somali-born Muslim woman in the new Congress
  • “My voice will get louder and stronger, and my leadership will be celebrated around the world,” Omar said in a closing speech

WASHINGTON: The Republican-led House voted after raucous debate Thursday to oust Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar from the chamber’s Foreign Affairs Committee, citing her anti-Israel comments.
This comes in a dramatic response after Democrats last session booted far-right GOP lawmakers over incendiary remarks.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was able to solidify Republican support against the Somali-born Muslim woman in the new Congress although some GOP lawmakers had expressed reservations. Removal of lawmakers from House committees was essentially unprecedented until the Democratic ousters two years ago of hard-right Republican Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona.
The 218-211 vote, along party lines, came after a heated, voices-raised debate in which Democrats accused the GOP of targeting Omar based on her race. Omar defended herself on the House floor, asking if anyone was surprised she was being targeted, “because when you push power, power pushes back.” Democratic colleagues hugged and embraced her during the vote.
“My voice will get louder and stronger, and my leadership will be celebrated around the world,” Omar said in a closing speech.
Republicans focused on six statements Omar has made that “under the totality of the circumstances, disqualify her from serving on the Committee of Foreign Affairs,” said Rep. Michael Guest of Mississippi, the incoming chairman of the House Ethics Committee.
“All members, both Republicans and Democrats alike who seek to serve on Foreign Affairs, should be held to the highest standard of conduct due to the international sensitivity and national security concerns under the jurisdiction of this committee,” Guest said.
The resolution proposed by Rep. Max Miller, R-Ohio, a former official in the Trump administration, declared, “Omar’s comments have brought dishonor to the House of Representatives.”
Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York said Omar has at times “made mistakes” and used antisemitic tropes that were condemned by House Democrats four years ago. But that’s not what Thursday’s vote was about, he said.
“It’s not about accountability, it’s about political revenge,” Jeffries said.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, went one step further, saying that the GOP’s action was one of the “disgusting legacies after 9/11,” a reference to the Sept. 11, 2001, attack — “the targeting and racism against Muslim-Americans throughout the United States of America. And this is an extension of that legacy.”
She added, “This is about targeting women of color.”
McCarthy denied the Republican move to oust Omar was a tit-for-tat after the Greene and Gosar removals under Democrats, though he had warned in late 2021 that such a response might be expected if Republicans won back the House majority.
“This is nothing like the last Congress,” he said Thursday. He noted that Omar can remain on other panels, just not Foreign Affairs after her anti-Israel comments.
Omar is one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. She is also the first to wear a hijab in the House chamber after floor rules were changed to allow members to wear head coverings for religious reasons.
She quickly generated controversy after entering Congress in 2019 with a pair of tweets that suggested lawmakers who supported Israel were motivated by money.
In the first, she criticized the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” she wrote, invoking slang about $100 bills.
Asked on Twitter who she thought was paying members of Congress to support Israel, Omar responded, “AIPAC!”
The comments sparked a public rebuke from then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats who made clear that Omar had overstepped.
She soon apologized.
“We have to always be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me about my identity,” Omar tweeted. “This is why I unequivocally apologize.”
Democrats rallied in a fiery defense of Omar and the experiences she brings to the Congress.
Black, Latino and progressive lawmakers in particular spoke of her unique voice in the House and criticized Republicans for what they called a racist attack.
“Racist gaslighting,” said Rep. Cori Bush, D-Missouri A “revenge resolution,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, the chair of the progressive caucus.
“It’s so painful to watch,” said Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Michigan, who joined Congress with Omar in 2019 the first two female Muslims elected to the House.
“To Congresswoman Omar, I am so sorry that our country is failing you today through this chamber,” Tlaib said through tears. “You belong on that committee.”
Omar’s previous comments were among several remarks highlighted in the resolutions seeking her removal from the Foreign Affairs Committee.
The chairman of the committee, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, argued for excluding Omar from the panel during a recent closed-door meeting with fellow Republicans.
“It’s just that her worldview of Israel is so diametrically opposed to the committee’s,” McCaul told reporters in describing his stance. “I don’t mind having differences of opinion, but this goes beyond that.”
McCarthy has already blocked Reps. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell, both California Democrats, from rejoining the House Intelligence Committee once the GOP took control of the chamber in January. While appointments to the intelligence panel are the prerogative of the speaker, the action on Omar requires a House vote.
Several Republicans skeptical of removing Omar wanted “due process” for lawmakers who face removal. McCarthy said he told them he would work with Democrats on creating a due process system, but acknowledged it’s still a work in progress.


Norway police ban Qur'an burning protest after Turkiye summons Oslo envoy

Norway police ban Qur'an burning protest after Turkiye summons Oslo envoy
Updated 02 February 2023

Norway police ban Qur'an burning protest after Turkiye summons Oslo envoy

Norway police ban Qur'an burning protest after Turkiye summons Oslo envoy

ANKARA/OSLO: Norwegian police on Thursday banned a planned anti-Islam protest including the burning of a copy of the Qur'an this week for security reasons, hours after the Turkish foreign ministry summoned Norway’s ambassador to complain.
A group of protesters planned to burn a copy of the Qur'an outside the Turkish embassy in Oslo on Friday, police said, echoing similar demonstrations last month in Sweden and Denmark.
“Burning the Qur'an remains a legal way to express political views in Norway. But this event cannot be carried out for security reasons,” Oslo police said in a statement, citing intelligence it had received.
Earlier on Thursday, Ankara strongly condemned the anti-Islam group’s plans, which it said were a “provocative act,” a source from the Turkish foreign ministry said, adding that the ministry had asked for the demonstration to be called off.
Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Turkiye had raised the planned demonstration in a meeting.
“Our ambassador referred to the constitutional right to freedom of expression in Norway, and added that the Norwegian government neither supports nor is involved with the planned demonstration,” said a ministry spokesperson.
The police can only ban a demonstration if there is a danger to the public.
A protest including the burning a copy of Qur'an last month near the Turkish embassy in Stockholm by an anti-immigrant Danish-Swedish politician from the far-right fringe drew strong condemnation from Ankara.
Sweden and Finland applied last year to join NATO after Russia invaded Ukraine, but faced unexpected objections from Turkiye and have since sought to win its support.
Sweden said on Thursday it would tighten laws covering membership of terrorist organizations.


Philippines gives US more access to military bases as concerns over China grow

Philippines gives US more access to military bases as concerns over China grow
Updated 02 February 2023

Philippines gives US more access to military bases as concerns over China grow

Philippines gives US more access to military bases as concerns over China grow
  • With 4 more locations, US now has access to 9 military sites in Philippines
  • US-Philippine alliance crucial to the stability of Indo-Pacific, defense chiefs say

MANILA: The Philippines has granted the US expanded access to its military bases, their defense chiefs announced on Thursday, providing American forces with a strategic footing at a time of growing tensions over the disputed South China Sea and self-ruled Taiwan.

Manila and Washington agreed to accelerate the full implementation of the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement for joint training and exercises, which gives the US entry to four more locations in strategic areas of the Philippines.

The US would now have access to a total of nine military sites in the Southeast Asian country.

The move, announced during US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to the Philippine capital, is aimed at strengthening bilateral cooperation to support the Philippines’ defense capabilities and to address pressing security threats in the region, Philippine Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez said during their joint news conference.

“We shall continue to work towards maintaining a stable rules-based open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region along with partner countries,” he told reporters.

“We strongly oppose any unilateral action or attempt to disrupt current world order and share the same views that all countries should resolve any issue peacefully and adhere to international law.”

Austin said the expansion will allow US and Philippine forces to operate together more efficiently from key sites across the Philippines.

“America’s commitment to the defense of the Philippines is ironclad,” he added.

“Our alliance makes both of our democracies more secure and helps uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

He and Galvez also discussed ways to address “destabilizing activities” around Philippine waters, including in the South China Sea.

“These efforts are especially important as the People’s Republic of China continues to advance its illegitimate claims in the West Philippine Sea,” Austin said, referring to another name of the disputed waters.

With a recent increase of Chinese activity in the area, Manila in December boosted its military presence in the region after reports that China had started taking unoccupied land features within Philippine waters.

The US State Department announced that it was allocating more than $82 million for the infrastructure and investments of the Philippine military sites.

While Austin said that the US was not “seeking permanent basing in the Philippines,” spokesperson of the Philippine Department of National Defense Arsenio Andolong told Arab News the number of joint drills would increase.

“The existing exercises we already have with them will be expanded in terms of scope and number of participants…There will be more troops that will be joining the exercises,” he said.

Though it was signed almost a decade ago, progress on the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement stalled during the years of former President Rodrigo Duterte, who distanced the Philippines from the US in favor of Beijing.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who took office in June and has since met both US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, appears to be taking a more balanced approach.

In a meeting on Thursday morning, he told Austin that he cannot see a future for his country without its longtime ally.

“The future of the Philippines and, for that matter, the Asia Pacific, will always have to involve the United States,” he said.