ZAMBOANGA—A government offensive against the extremist Abu Sayyaf Group after a spate of kidnappings has left 18 soldiers and five rebels dead in the worst violence in Mindanao this year, authorities said Sunday.
Saturday’s clashes on the strife-torn island of Basilan came after an April 8 ransom deadline set by Abu Sayyaf, who had threatened to behead some of their foreign hostages.
At least four soldiers were beheaded in the fighting, which involved about 100 Abu Sayyaf rebels, regional military spokesman Maj. Filemon Tan said.
Armed Forces chief Gen. Hernando Iriberri, who flew to the southern command base in Zamboanga city, 44 kilometers from the violence, said the fighting lasted almost 10 hours.
“The whole armed forces is grieving,” he told reporters.
He said a Moroccan national who was with the gunmen was killed in the clashes, identifying him as Mohammad Khattab, an instructor in making improvised explosive devices as well as an “Islamic jihadist preacher.”
“He wanted to unify, organize all kidnap-for-ransom groups to be affiliated with an international terrorist organization,” the general said.
He would not identify the international group the Moroccan was allegedly working for.
Iriberri said operations were continuing, adding that “even as we speak, there is an encounter going on in the same place.”
The 10-hour firefight Saturday took place inside the stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf Group led by Isnilon Hapilon in Sitio Bayoko, Barangay Baguindan, Tipo-Tipo, Basilan.
Hapilon is included in the list of most wanted terrorists in Asia by the United States government with a $5-million bounty for his capture, dead or alive. Last year, Hapilon’s group had pledged allegiance to the Islamic terrorists in Iraq and Syria.
The bloody clash brought back the horrifying memories of the Al-Barka clash, also in Basilan, on Oct. 18, 2011 where 19 members of the Army’s Special Forces were killed, some of them mutilated, during a day-long firefight with about 400 combined armed men of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, ASG and some private armed groups.
Military sources identified the fallen soldiers—all members of the 44th Infantry Battalion, as 1st Lt. Remegio Licena; Staff Sgt. Makin Jarani; Sgts. Akmad Usman, Paterno Aquino and Jason Alani; Cpls. Redel Perolino, Reezvi Archcelo Gandawali, Rodelio Bangcairin, Noel Else, Dionisio Labial, Rakib Kadil, Darius Bulan, and Ibrahim Palao; PFC Doren Aspurias, Marjun Duhaylungsod, Marjohn Monte, and Kevin Rey Verano; and Pvt. Dunemark Gil Saldivar.
Iriberri and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin arrived in Zamboanga Sunday morning and met with Western Mindanao Command officials headed by Lt. Gen. Mayoralgo Dela Cruz. They also visited the wounded soldiers at the Camp Navarro General Hospital.
Military spokesman Col. Noel Detoyato told GMA television in Manila that “our standing order... is no let-up in our combat operations so we expect in the next few days, there will be many more encounters.”
The military spokesman for the unit involved in the battle said the soldiers were on their way to attack an Abu Sayyaf hideout when they were hit.
“Our group was heading to attack them. On the way, they were ambushed,” Col. Benedict Manquiquis told radio station dzRH.
“The enemy had the high ground so no matter where our soldiers fled to seek cover, they could still be hit by the heavy firepower and improvised explosive devices of the members of the Abu Sayyaf group.”
Tan said that 53 soldiers and 20 Abu Sayyaf had also been wounded in the violence.
A live screening of Filipino boxing legend Manny Pacquiao’s last fight taking place in the United States, which was scheduled to show at a military gym in Zamboanga, was called off as the facility prepared to receive the bodies of the slain soldiers.
The clash came shortly after a retired Italian priest being held hostage by Abu Sayyaf was freed on Friday.
The militant group had also threatened to kill a Norwegian and two Canadian hostages and a Filipina they kidnapped in September if a ransom was not paid by Friday.
The military said there has been no word on the hostages’ fate since the deadline passed.
Eighteen other foreign hostages are being held, most or all of them thought to be in the hands of the Abu Sayyaf.
The Abu Sayyaf, a small group of militants known for kidnapping foreigners and demanding huge ransoms, was established in the early 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaida network.
It has been blamed for the country’s worst terror attacks, including a 2004 Manila Bay ferry bombing that claimed 116 lives.
Its leaders have in recent years pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group that controls vast swathes of Iraq and Syria.
A Palace ally in the Senate said Sunday that finishing off the Abu Sayyaf should be the first job of the next president.
Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto noted that the Abu Sayyaf has bedeviled four presidencies and, if not stopped, is on track to confront the fifth Malacañang occupant in their almost quarter-of-a-century of mayhem and violence.
“What is clear is that ending their terror has become an important part of the job description of the next president. What is also clear is that Abu Sayyaf’s predatory attacks have been reduced by the current administration,” said Recto, a reelectionist under the ruling Liberal Party.
Lately, however, the Abu Sayyaf has gone on a kidnapping spree, snatching 10 Indonesian fishermen, bringing the number of their hostages to 14. The other four are Dutch Ewold Hurn, Canadians John Ridsdel and Robert Hall, and Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad.
Before their hostages become a United Nations of kidnap victims, they must be stopped, Recto said.
“We know the lessons of the past. Ransom payments fuel more kidnappings and finance more terror activities,” he said.
Independent presidential candidate Senator Grace Poe said these terrorists should be immediately pursued and crushed by the full might of the military and police forces, with due regard for the safety of the innocent civilians.
Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. called on the Armed Forces of the Philippines to disclose the details of the encounter in Basilan with Abu Sayyaf forces.
He said the entire nation and most especially the families of the slain soldiers deserve full transparency in the military operation against the international terrorist group.
“We need a full picture of the encounter. We should not hide these details. The Filipino people and most especially the families of the soldiers killed and wounded deserve to know the whole truth,” he said.
He expressed concern about the silence of the AFP on the operation. Reports have shown that after the Western Mindanao Command’s report of 22 soldiers injured early Saturday, no official statement has been released about the clashes.
“Here were go again. We are again in the dark of what happened,” he said noting of the country’s experience with the ill-fated Mamasapano operation which led to the killing of 44 members of the Special Action Force. It took several weeks before police officials made a public pronouncement on who ordered the operation.
Marcos added the AFP has to make public who led the operation and the exact purpose of the operation in an area controlled by the armed group. “Who was in charge of the operation? What was the exact objective of the operation? We need answers because this is something that strikes a chord with every Filipino because of the Mamasapano incident a year ago,” he said.
Presidential candidate Vice President Jejomar Binay condoled with the families of the slain soldiers. He said the bloody incident is a reminder that the government needs to address poverty and the absence of peace in Mindanao. With AFP, Macon Ramos-Araneta and PNA
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