SINGAPORE – Joint patrols by three Southeast Asian countries in the Sulu Sea may be the start of a larger regional effort to keep Islamic militants at bay, officials said yesterday.
The patrols will be conducted by forces from the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, starting with sea and air operations from June, with patrols starting at a later date.
The initiative in the Sulu Sea, an area bounded by the Malaysian state of Sabah and southern Philippines, is a “collective agreement that is followed by the operational level,” according to Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, who spoke at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual regional security conference in Singapore attended by defense ministers and experts from 39 countries.
The joint patrols will feature joint command posts and exercises among the trio’s ground forces – an attempt “to prevent and protect our border, to close the border so that militants don’t go to other areas,” Ryamizard said.
“If the situation escalates and extends to other waters, we would like to request other countries to join,” he added.
“We decided at least these three countries, to avoid being accused of doing nothing... We’re doing joint maritime and air patrols,” Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said, adding that the air patrols will be launched on June 19.
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“Our open borders are being exploited by terrorist groups to facilitate personnel and material,” Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Secretary-General Le Luong Minh told delegates to the forum.
The region is home to 600 million people and includes Indonesia, which has the world’s highest number of Muslims. Authorities in both Indonesia and Malaysia, also Muslim-majority, have said thousands of their citizens are sympathizers of Islamic State (IS) and hundreds are believed to have traveled to Syria to join the extremist group.
Indonesian authorities blamed IS for bombings last month that killed three police officers, the latest in a series of low-level attacks by the militants in the last 17 months.
In the Philippines, troops are struggling so far to end a bloody siege by 500 Islamic State group-aligned extremists in the southern city of Marawi, one of the boldest militant attacks in Southeast Asia in years.
Forty foreigners involved in the Marawi attack may have found a path through the Sulu Sea, according to Philippine Defense Undersecretary Ricardo David Jr.
“They have a back channels corridor in our country, probably in the area of Sulu Sea and Celebes Sea, that they can proceed to Mindanao and link with the terrorist units in the area,” he said.