MARITIME AUTHORITIES from neighboring Asian countries are meeting in Manila on Dec. 18–19 to tackle security in the Sulu and Celebes Seas, where the Abu Sayyaf terror group is the biggest threat, according to the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG). The gathering is attended by representatives from the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and China. It is convened by the PCG and the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) Information Sharing Centre (ISC). “Our objective is to share the latest situation in Sulu-Celebes Seas… and to share, consider, and discuss the further steps that we have to take to improve the situation,” ReCAAP ISC Executive Director Masafumi Kuroki said in a live-streamed press conference on Wednesday. “Since 2016, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia have been exerting efforts to address maritime crimes, with active assistance from Australia, Japan, and the United States to enhance capabilities. However, if we want to sustainably address these maritime safety and security issues, we need to study the dynamics of these prevailing criminal activities. I believe this meeting is a great avenue for such undertaking,” he said.

The PCG reported that there were 19 actual and 11 attempted crew abduction incidents from March 2016 to November 2019 “in the Sulu-Celebes Seas and Eastern Sabah” areas. “Keeping our sea lanes safe and secure will maintain free and open passage of commercial vessels and will make regional economies thrive and develop without the threat of piracy and armed robbery against ships at sea,” said PCG Commandant Admiral Joel S. Garcia, also chair of the ReCAAP ISC Governing Council. Lt. Gen. Cirilito E. Sobejana, commander of the Philippine military’s Western Mindanao Command, for his part reported that they remain “relentless” in the rescue operations for four remaining Abu Sayyaf kidnap victims. Three of them are Indonesians and one Filipino. “We are relentless in our rescue efforts for the remaining four kidnap victims… it was at 47 three years ago,” Mr. Sobejana said, noting the cooperation and assistance of all sectors in their operations. The Abu Sayyaf, known for its kidnap-for-ransom activities, is a local terror group that has ties with the Islamic State. The ReCAAP is the first regional government-to-government agreement to promote and enhance cooperation against piracy and armed robbery against ships in Asia. — MSJ