Gov’t body declares Sulu ‘Abu Sayyaf-free’
COTABATO CITY, Maguindanao del Norte, Philippines — The Sulu Provincial Peace and Order Council (PPOC) led by Gov. Abdusakur Tan, with top military and police officials among its members, has declared the province free from the influence of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), which officials said could open a new chapter for peace and development in the area.
Tan made the announcement during the third quarter PPOC meeting in Patikul town on Wednesday, as he released the declaration signed by him, the province’s 19 town mayors, the commander of the Philippine Army’s 11th Infantry Division, and the Joint Task Force Sulu, and the Sulu provincial police director.
But the declaration was mum about how many Abu Sayyaf members might still be in the province and how state forces were able to wipe out the terror group, which had used Sulu as its base for decades.
Instead, the provincial government said the declaration hoped to turn the image of the people of Sulu as peace-loving individuals and the image of the province from the perceived “terrorist’s haven” to a prime tourist and economic zone.
Sulu, one of the southernmost provinces in the Philippines along with Tawi-tawi, is part of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao and home to about a million residents as of the 2020 census.
Sulu had also been widely known as the base of one of the most violent terror groups operating in western Philippines, the ASG, which has been known for its kidnap-for-ransom attacks and beheading of its victims. One of its most notorious attacks was the May 27, 2001, kidnapping of 20 hostages from Dos Palmas Resort in Palawan, resulting in the deaths of five of its original hostages, including the beheading of the American Guillermo Sobero of Corona, California.
In February 2017, German national Jurgen Kantner, 70, was beheaded. He was held on a southern island of Jolo, the provincial capital. In June the previous year (2016), Canadian hostage Robert Hall was beheaded, barely two months after the severed head of another Canadian national John Ridsdel, 68, was found in southern Sulu.
The group was also blamed for the Jan. 27, 2019, twin bombings of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Jolo, killing 20 people and hurting 102 others.
According to Tan, the terror group, “after decades of existence… has been defeated, thanks to the collaborative peace and development efforts exerted by the people of Sulu.”
He added: “Now, it’s time for us to seize the opportunities that lie ahead and harness the true potential of our province.”
The PPOC, in its resolution, stressed that the declaration of Sulu as Abu Sayyaf-free “marks a crucial step towards fostering a safe environment for the people of Sulu while allowing them to pursue their motivations without fear or intimidation.”
“The people of Sulu have been very vocal about sustaining the current peace and development situation which they believe will be the key towards achieving a better tomorrow,” the resolution added.
Tan credited the relative peace the province had been enjoying to the organization and strengthening of the Provincial Task Force to End Local Armed Conflict, in partnership with the PPOC.
As a show of solidarity, the 19 towns of Sulu also passed their respective resolutions declaring their communities free from the ASG’s influence.
Security threats posed by the ASG have deterred tourists from exploring Sulu’s pristine landscape, rich culture and unique heritage for years.
Tan stressed the need for improved roads, transportation networks and tourist facilities to entice tourists to come.
“We have enormous untapped potential for tourism here in Sulu. Our stunning beaches, diverse marine life and vibrant cultural heritage are assets waiting to be discovered by the world,” he said.
Tan said the provincial government would soon “invest in infrastructure, ensuring that visitors have access to safe and comfortable accommodations, efficient transportation and captivating attractions.”
But the key to all these is to create an environment that is not only welcoming but also safe for tourists, he added.