JOLO, Sulu, March 8 (PNA) -– The Philippines will propose for the creation of a “Tripartite Task Force” also involving neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia, a move that seeks to curb lawless activities such as piracy by organised transnational syndicates and terrorist groups in the Sulu and Sulawesi seas.
Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Eduardo Año said they are crafting a plan to “enhance” existing cross-border maritime security agreements with the two neighboring countries ahead of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit that the Philippines will host next month.
“In the upcoming ASEAN meeting, we have proposals on how to improve [existing cross-border security agreements] such as the creation of a Tripartite Task Force involving Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia to patrol the common sea of interest (of the three countries),” Año said.
The AFP chief visited this island province on Tuesday to oversee the ongoing military operations against the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).
There have been several bilateral and trilateral agreements signed among the three countries in recent years due to the spate of atrocities by transnational organized crime syndicates and terrorist groups, especially the Abu Sayyaf, whose strongholds include the island provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.
Currently, Año said the three countries “have established a security system in the waters bordering Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia.”
Pressed for details, Año told Philippines News Agency that “it is a matter of coming up with mechanisms and clear the specific points of the existing agreements.”
Possible enhancements will focus on improving communications, intelligence sharing, and other operating procedures, the official added.
At present, the three countries are into general joint patrols that are being carried out across the roughly 1,000,000-square kilometer tri-border area in the Sulu and Sulawesi seas.
Despite the continuing threats and atrocities perpetrated by terror groups and other transnational crime gangs operating in these waters, Año noted that the joint patrols have helped in thwarting piracy and hijacking.
“In fact, in the last two weeks, there were three attempts of hijacking and piracy that we’ve prevented,” he said, without giving details.
To prevent being victimized by pirates and hijackers, the three countries have implemented several mechanisms to secure the sea lanes for commercial vessels plying this route.
“There are designated sea lanes for commercial ships, and monitoring stations that can warn these commercial vessels [when there is a threat],” Año said.
He issued the statement amid pressure for the government to rid these seas of pirates and hijackers, following the recent attack on a Vietnamese vessel.
Concerning “the recent hijacking of the Vietnamese vessel, they did not pass the designated sea lanes that’s why our security forces failed to monitor and warn them,” he said.
In February, gunmen believed to be members of the Abu Sayyaf attacked Vietnamese cargo vessel M/V Giang Hai in the sea border between Malaysia and the Philippines’ southernmost island province of Tawi-Tawi. The gunmen abducted six crew members.
There have been similar cases of hijacking and kidnapping in the high seas bordering the Philippines and Malaysia.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the government is trying to address this kind of incident by beefing up its security assets.
Lorenzana, however, admitted that current government maritime assets in securing the Sulu Sulawesi seas are not enough.
“Our navy boats are there but the sea area is too big. We cannot completely guard it. We have no substantial resources, such as fast crafts to guard this area,” he explained.
At present, there are six navy gunboats stationed in this province.