Indonesian armed forces can enter Philippine waters

The Philippine government has given Indonesia's armed forces the green light to enter its territorial waters as part of efforts to rescue seven Indonesians allegedly held hostage by Abu Sayyaf militants.

Indonesian Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, who met his Philippine counterpart Voltaire Gazmin in Manila on Sunday to discuss the hostage crisis, yesterday said: "The Philippines has agreed."

"There is a legal basis for it... It's a concrete step," he said, according to Detiknews.com website. "They have agreed to us entering their sea, and later on, to land."

Seven Indonesian sailors were taken hostage in the Sulu Sea on June 20 by gunmen believed to be Abu Sayyaf militants, in the third such abduction of Indonesians in recent months.

They were part of a 13-member crew that was manning the tugboat Charles 001, which was towing a barge called Robby 152. The other six crew members, along with the vessels, were released.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told a press conference yesterday the defence ministers' meeting was "to increase defence cooperation to ensure the safety of boats from both countries sailing in the waters around Sulu".

The defence ministers have agreed to cooperate on rescuing the hostages and preventing a repeat of such incidents, she said.

Ms Retno said "intensive communication and coordination" is being carried out with related parties in both countries, and Indonesia's priority is to ensure the safety of the hostages.

"The hostages are in good condition," she said, adding that they are on the move but believed to be on Jolo island, in Sulu province, about 1,900km south of the capital Manila.

Ms Retno said she plans to meet the new Philippine foreign minister after tomorrow, when Mr Rodrigo Duterte is slated to be sworn in as president.

The Abu Sayyaf, notorious for kidnapping people and demanding millions of dollars in ransom for their return, in April abducted a group of Malaysian sailors in the same waters, releasing them early this month.

The militants also abducted 10 Indonesian sailors on March 29, and another four on April 15. All were released last month.

The latest abduction has prompted Indonesia to extend a moratorium on coal shipments to the Philippines, saying the move will remain in place until Manila can improve security in its waters. Indonesia supplies 70 per cent of the Philippines' coal import needs.

Indonesia's Transportation Ministry has also issued a notice informing all harbour masters that they are "strictly prohibited from issuing permits to all Indonesian-flagged vessels bound for the Philippines, without exception".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2016, with the headline 'Indonesian armed forces can enter Philippine waters'. Print Edition | Subscribe