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Normal Life Returns to Philippine Town Once Dominated by Terrorists

An island of about 300,000 people in the southern Philippines has been part of the front line in the war on terror. Jolo island just a few years ago was a launching pad for kidnappings and bombings by the Abu Sayyaf group. But a combination of effective military action and humanitarian infrastructure projects is bringing back peace. Douglas Bakshian reports from the island's capital, which is coming back to life after years of hiding in fear.

Disco music blares from a stage and vendors sell food and drinks as local youth fill a city park. A few years ago this was not possible on Jolo, a stronghold of the deadliest Islamic militant group in the Philippines, the Abu Sayyaf.

Disc jockey Johnny Milton Dario started doing these evening shows one-and-a-half years ago on behalf of the provincial government. He says security has improved a lot in Jolo town, which was once considered one of the most dangerous places in the Philippines.

"Before we cannot walk (outside). Sometimes, around six o'clock we are already at home. Now we can go home around 12 o'clock, one o'clock in the morning. We are still safe here," Dario said.

Abu Sayyaf militants have been based on this Muslim-dominated island for years. But in 2002, U.S. troops arrived to help train and provide intelligence to the Philippine military, which has driven Islamic guerrillas into the hills.

Benjamin Loong, the governor of Sulu province, of which Jolo is the capital, says violent crime has dropped by 80 percent over the past few years and the improved security helps the economy.

"The local businessmen are now encouraged because the peace and order situation has changed a lot, meaning improving, because before there was an extortion letter, killing here and there, but now we are able to minimize," Loong said.

The Abu Sayyaf says it is fighting for an Islamic homeland in the southern Philippines, a predominantly Catholic nation. However, it is most known for a series of kidnappings for ransom and bloody bombings.

Not long ago, pistol shots frequently could be heard at night. Though troops patrolled the streets, the Abu Sayyaf group operated openly in the town.

Ananias Lim, an administrator at the Sulu State College Hostel, says not even soldiers were safe.

"The violence here in Jolo, like when the soldier goes to the market they killed some soldiers," Lim said. "And bombings … there are kidnappings of Chinese businessmen here and they use the money for their daily needs."

Jolo police chief Amil Bahing Baanan says the situation became so grave, that it prompted a crackdown by the Philippine Marines last year.

"Sometimes, in one day, there were three killing incidents…. But since when the Marines assumed office early as June 2006 the crime rate in our area of responsibility will immediately become low," Baanan said.

Jolo is one of the poorest areas of the Philippines and many people on the island say poverty and desperation gave rise to the Abu Sayyaf. Mogira Hassan, 19, studies computer engineering at Sulu State College.

"We are facing poverty, that's why there are some people who rebel like Abu Sayyaf," Hassan said. "They are rebelling for the sake of money. That is the reason they have an Abu Sayyaf. Like what happened before, they hostages people (took people as hostages)."

Abdel Khan, a 24-year-old Jolo resident with a degree in Islamic studies from the University of the Philippines, says many people on the island reject the group.

"Abu Sayyaf. Although they are Muslim, but we don't agree with them because they are extremists … we don't agree with their perception," Khan said.

While the military offensive has cut crime, public works projects by the U.S. and the Philippine armed forces and private aid groups have built up goodwill on Jolo since 2002. Roads have enabled once-isolated farmers to get produce to market, water systems have given villages easily accessible water supplies, and free medical services are helping the sick.

But these are fragile accomplishments. Even though Jolo town is more secure than in years past, for safety, Philippine Marines are still not allowed to go into town off duty wearing civilian clothes. In addition, some regularly wear sunglasses to hide their identities from militants.

And the island needs jobs. Residents say an industry is needed. Some point to Jolo's beautiful beaches and stunning volcanic lakes as a potentially lucrative source of tourism income. It is also abundant in fish and tropical fruit.

Jolo has yet to draw either national or international investment - not even the Philippine fast food chain Jollibee, or a McDonald's restaurant.

Those can be important symbols of peace. After the Abu Sayyaf was driven out of neighboring Basilan island in 2002, Jolibee open up as a signal that it was safe to do business.