GOVERNMENT troops clashed with some 200 Abu Sayyaf fighters Thursday in an hour-long firefight in Indanan, Sulu, that left 15 bandits and a soldier dead and scores wounded on both sides.
The huge number of Abu Sayyaf fighters involved in a single firefight seemed to contradict the repeated assertions by military officials that the numbers of the Abu Sayyaf were dwindling, and that the “remnants” were fewer than 400.
But Col. Noel Detoyato, head of public affairs of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), said the Abu Sayyaf bandits might be consolidating.
Capt. Antonio Bulao of the Joint Task Group Sulu added that they were reinforced by fighters belonging to the Nur Misuari faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
Military and police officials say the number of Abu Sayyaf fighters has dropped from a peak of 1,500 in the early 2000s to just a few hundreds.
On Thursday, at around 5:20 p.m., a company from the 1st Scout Ranger Battalion stormed the Abu Sayyaf lair in Barangay Buanza.
“At first, we estimated there were about 80 of them, but as the fighting continued, their numbers increased to an estimated 200,” Detoyato said.
The pursuing soldiers recovered at least five dead bandits.
The military pressed the attack against the escaping bandits that led to the rescue of Seaman 1st Class Rod
Pagaling and Seaman 2nd Class Gringo Villaruz, both belonging to the Coast Guard.
Pagaling and Villaruz together with Roldolfo Boligao, village chief of Aliguay, Dapitan City, Zamboanga del Norte, were abducted by the Abu Sayyaf in May. Just recently, the bandits beheaded Boligao and left his body in Maimbung, Sulu.
The two Coast Guard men sprinted through gunfire to freedom as government forces raided the bandit hideout, the Army said.
Villaruz and Pagaling slipped separately from the Abu Sayyaf camp on Wednesday night and raced through the jungle as their captors engaged in a gunbattle with the military, Detoyato said.
“Apparently at the height of the encounter, the two Coast Guard men were able to flee,” he said.
The men sought refuge at a village about 1.5 kilometers away, said Bulao, the spokesman of the unit involved in the clash.
Found an hour apart, they did not know the other had escaped until they saw each other Thursday at a local hospital where they were being treated for bruises.
Yasser Igasan, one of the Abu Sayyaf Group’s most senior leaders, was believed to have escaped after the firefight, Detoyato said.
Fifteen Abu Sayyaf gunmen were killed, but the remains of only five were recovered as the rest were carried away by their comrades, he said. Several soldiers sustained minor injuries.
The fighting was so fierce that the military had to use artillery to drive the bandits back, Detoyato said.
“It was a long fight: one hour and 35 minutes. That is unusual because they normally disengage immediately,” he said.
Bulao said Villaruz and Pagaling told authorities four other hostages were held with them, including a Malaysian and a Korean. He said the military would continue efforts to free all the hostages.
Separate fighting in neighboring Basilan island on Wednesday left five Abu Sayyaf members and one soldier killed, the military said.
Impoverished Jolo and Basilan are known strongholds of the Abu Sayyaf, a loose band of several hundred armed men set up in the 1990s with seed money from the Al-Qaeda network of Osama Bin Laden.
The group engages in kidnappings to finance operations, often targeting foreigners and sometimes beheading captives if ransom is not paid.
It has also been blamed for the worst bomb attacks in the country, including the firebombing of a ferry off Manila Bay in 2004 that killed more than 100 people.
The Palace commended the AFP for conducting operations to free the two Coast Guard personnel held captive by the Abu Sayyaf.
“We believe that operations are still ongoing in Sulu, and the military troops have succeeded in breaking the areas that were previously held by the Abu Sayyaf Group,” said Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. – With Sandy Araneta, AFP