Police and military officials on Saturday assured that Cebu is safe but urged the public to remain vigilant in the wake of the firefight that claimed nine lives in Bohol this week as well as several unverified reports of terrorist sightings in the province circulating through text and on social media.
The assurance came amid a report by the Associated Press (AP), quoting security officials, which said that the foiled attack in Bohol was a kidnapping and bombing mission by at least three extremist groups affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) group.
Interviews with three security officials, along with documents and pictures seen by the AP, indicated that three extremist groups that have pledged allegiance to IS deployed their leading bombers and fighters, some of whom wore IS-style black flag patches, for the Bohol assault. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose details of the ongoing investigation of the foiled attack.
The Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines in Cebu were mum on reports linking those terrorists in Bohol to IS.
Chief Supt. Noli Talino, director of Police Regional Office (PRO-7), also maintained that the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) members killed during the firefight were Filipinos, contrary to reports that those included in the death toll were foreigners.
Taliño stressed that Central Visayas is “generally safe” and that what happened in Barangay Napo in Inabanga, Bohol, was isolated there. The area, he said, was now safe to return to and that residents who fled amid the firefight had now gone back to their homes after military and police forces finished clearing operations.
Taliño also said they have yet to verify whether the two civilians, a couple, who were killed in the encounter were ASG members or even sympathizers, or caught in the crossfire. Out of the nine who died, three were soldiers while one was a policeman.
Authorities are still on the hunt for five of the armed group’s members who escaped, including Boholano Joselito Melloria.
The militants, who traveled from Sulu, more than 500 kilometers (300 miles) by motor boat to the south of Bohol, were guided to Inabanga’s interior hinterlands by Melloria, a convert to Islam. Military officials believed he may have been designated to lead another IS-linked extremist band called Ansar Khilafa Philippines (AKP) had the Bohol attack been successful, the officials told AP.
The AKP group’s leader, Mohammad Jaafar Maguid, was killed by Philippine counterterrorism forces in southern Sarangani province in January.
Melloria, who uses the nom de guerre Abu Alih and allowed the militants to stay at his Inabanga home, was wounded in the Bohol fighting and escaped with several other militants, the three officials said.
It remains unclear what the targets of the militants were; but Bohol draws foreign and local tourists for its beach resorts, waterfalls, caves and wildlife.
Bohol Island lies about 640 kilometers (397 miles) southeast of Manila and is about an hour by boat from Cebu province, a trade and tourism center.
Bohol is to host a meeting next week of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the regional bloc the Philippines is leading this year.
Senior Supt. Eric Noble, Cebu Provincial Police Office (CPPO) director, yesterday affirmed they have received a number of reports on the presence of armed groups in Cebu, particularly in the southern part of the island, but that all of these were not validated.
“The police are all visible. They are all on their toes to deter whatever it is the reports are saying. But so far, there have been none (sightings of armed groups) on Cebu Island,” he said on the sidelines of a meeting with southern Cebu-based private and public stakeholders in a resort in Oslob town, 121 kilometers south of Cebu City.
Noble said his office was earlier notified of sightings in Argao, Carcar City, San Fernando, Samboan, Santander and Camotes Island but saw there was no threat in these areas when they went to check.
The reports came in the aftermath of the clash between police and military forces and members of the ASG in the town of Inabanga, Bohol, on Tuesday.
Police said the ASG had been planning to conduct kidnapping operations in Bohol, virtually affirming a US Embassy in Manila travel advisory warning its citizens about traveling to Central Visayas due to threats of kidnapping activities being planned by terrorist groups.
The spread of reports of supposed sightings of armed men that have caused massive confusion to the public prompted the PRO-7 to issue a statement on Maundy Thursday asking the general public to refrain from sharing any unverified information on possible threats and instead bring it to the attention of appropriate authorities.
“We want to assure the public that the police is doing everything it can, especially here in Cebu, so we can allay their fears,” Noble said.
Taliño likewise stressed the need for support from stakeholders as information coming from the community is crucial in combating crime, as proven by how things turned out in Bohol.
“For two years, we have been monitoring groups in Central Visayas. Because of the timely and correct information we received from different sources, we were able to foil the plans of the group (ASG),” he said.
While security in southern Cebu has been beefed up since November last year when the US Embassy issued an earlier travel advisory, the latest circumstances have pushed the police to take it a step further.
“We have leveled up. By ‘level up,’ I mean we are going around meeting all stakeholders. We will educate them so we know what to do in case there are sightings. That way, they can notify the police or military immediately,” said Noble.
More than 100 public and private stakeholders attended the meeting on Saturday, among them mayors, vice mayors, councilors, resort owners, managers and other representatives.
This was the second time authorities met with various stakeholders this week, the first one being with regional tour operators and public sector members.
Oslob Mayor Jose Tumulak said that even before the meeting, the local government had organized its resort owners, asking them to report immediately to authorities sightings of suspicious persons especially at sea.
This week’s events and the travel advisories — issued not only by the US but also the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada — have hurt some of the resorts in Oslob, which reported canceled bookings. But most resorts were fully booked from Wednesday to Friday this week, with tourists coming to take part in whaleshark-watching activities, said Tumulak.
Tourism in Badian town also continues to thrive despite the recent travel advisories and Bohol encounter with no report of canceled bookings, said Donald Villarin, Badian municipal tourism officer.
“There is no such effect. I think it isn’t much of a concern because Badian is enclosed. It isn’t easily accessible from the sea, so armed groups will find it difficult to navigate,” he said.
Badian welcomes on average 70,000 visitors every month, 70 percent of whom are domestic while the rest are Japanese, Korean, European and Latin American.
Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla was meanwhile quoted by AP as saying that the combined military and police forces thwarted in Bohol “major terrorist activities” by the militants, who were aiming to divert the military’s focus from intense offensives on the militants’ jungle encampments in southern Sulu province and outlying islands.
“The persons who died in the area, some of whom have been identified to be known terrorists, are still the subject of a continuing investigation to ascertain their participation,” Padilla said, adding that the result of the investigation would be made public in the near future.
While considered a key commander and emerging leader of Abu Sayyaf, Moammar Askali, who was among those killed in the daylong siege, had also led a hard-line Abu Sayyaf faction called the Marakat Ansar Battalion, which is among the 10 small armed groups that pledged allegiance to IS about three years ago and formed an IS-inspired alliance in the southern Philippines. Askali had been implicated in the beheadings of two Canadian hostages last year and a German tourist in February in Sulu’s jungles, the officials said.
Other Abu Sayyaf commanders have refused to align themselves with the Middle East–based extremist group, according to the officials.
Aside from Askali, another key Sulu-based militant killed in Bohol was Edimar Isnain, who had worked with Malaysian and Indonesian militants in assembling bombs and leading bomb-making training for recruits of Abu Sayyaf and another violent group called Dawla Islamiya Ranao, also known as the Maute group, based in southern Lanao del Sur province.
Troops recovered four assault rifles, rifle grenades and a sackload of bomb-making materials, including detonating cords, blasting caps and electronic bomb parts, a military report said.