Philippines wants coordinated patrols to protect ships from rebels

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines has been discussing coordinated naval patrols on its southern maritime borders with Indonesia and Malaysia to protect shipping after attacks and kidnappings by Islamist militants, its foreign minister said on Thursday.

Philippines' Foreign Secretary Jose Rene Almendras looks on during a meeting with Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (unseen) at the Government Office in Hanoi, April 11, 2016. REUTERS/Kham

Indonesia is trying to free about 14 of its citizens seized from tugboats by Abu Sayyaf rebels from the southern Philippines and has called for joint patrols. Four Malaysians seamen are also being held.

The Islamist rebels, who are raking in tens of millions of dollars in ransom, decapitated a Canadian on Monday and are still holding 23 hostages. Citizens of the Netherlands, Japan, Norway and the Philippines are among them.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Jose Rene Almendras said his country was only proposing separate but coordinated patrols to identify safe corridors where ships can travel.

Indonesia last week called for joint maritime patrols with the Philippines and Malaysia. Joint patrols would involve ships from the three navies patrolling together and crossing into each other’s territorial waters.

Officials from the three sides are due to meet in Jakarta on May 5 to discuss cooperation.

“The issue is safety and security,” Almendras told Reuters after signing an infrastructure loan agreement with South Korea.

“It’s called coordinated patrols, we’ll do our patrols and they will have their own patrols in their own territorial waters so there will be no more threats to the movement of ships, including the kidnapping of sailors.”

Two Indonesian coal ports have blocked ships from leaving to the Philippines and Malaysia’s eastern Sabah state due to security concerns

The growing frequency of maritime attacks has affected coal trade between the Southeast Asian neighbors Indonesia, the world’s largest thermal coal exporter, and the Philippines, which, relies on Jakarta for 70 percent of its coal imports.

Abu Sayyaf, known for kidnappings, beheadings, bombings and extortion, is one of the most brutal militant groups in Muslim south of the largely Christian Philippines.

Outgoing President Benigno Aquino has promised to devote his remaining days in office to crushing the militants. Fourteen rebels have been killed in bombing of the stronghold of Jolo island since Tuesday, a military spokesman said.

Since 2006, the United States has provided nearly $200 million in military aid to strengthen naval forces of the three Southeast Asian countries to combat piracy and militancy.

Reporting By Manuel Mogato; Editing by Martin Petty, Robert Birsel