THE Abu Sayyaf taunted President Rodrigo Duterte Wednesday night, warning thousands of government troops he sent to hunt them down in Sulu to prepare for a “test of strength.”
“Starting September 1, the so-called soldiers of Duterte should be prepared for a test which will come from ASG forces,” Radullah Sahiron, Abu Sayyaf commander in Sulu, told the ABS-CBN network.
“If soldiers will not be the ones who will attack, the Abu Sayyaf will be the ones to launch tests against these forces to win Sulu by their terms,” he added.
Duterte, who had ordered the military to crush the Abu Sayyaf in three to six months, admitted that the kidnap-for-ransom bandits could seek retribution, but said he was confident of winning the war with the whole military behind him.
“We should be aware because we are hitting them hard,” Duterte said in a speech in Davao City, referring to the Abu Sayyaf. “I expect retribution from them. But what you can dish out, I can do it 10 times better. I have the army, and I have airplanes.”
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said they would not take the Abu Sayyaf threats lightly, after the government lost 15 soldiers in a battle in Patikul, Sulu on Monday.
“If threats like that are made, whether true or not, we take them seriously, especially coming from the ASG. They are a formidable opponent and judging from our casualties last Monday—they must not be taken lightly,” Lorenzana told the Manila Standard.
Since operations started last week, the government has already deployed an additional five batallions or more than 2,500 soldiers to augment the forces in Sulu--bringing the total number to 7,500 as of Wednesday.
Troops deployed in the mountains have launched ground attacks while aerial reconnaissance teams search for ASG commandos in known lairs.
Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said the military and police and all other government law enforcement agencies are on heightened alert in the National Capital Region, Davao and Cebu, because of raw information that the ASG might launch diversionary attacks in urban centers.
Duterte recently slammed the terrorist group for killing and mutilating in the name of Allah.
“You think Allah would be happy to see you do that? In the name of Allah, you kill then, unnecessarily, you mutilate the body of the human being?” Duterte said.
Lorenzana said that specific actions to counter the ASG were left to the military.
Journalists who are covering the operations against the Abu Sayyaf Group in Sulu were moved to a bigger military camp, given threat of attack from the group.
A GMA News report confirmed that the AFP told journalists at the camp of the 35th Infantry Battalion Wednesday night to pack their things so they could move to Camp Teodulfo Bautista.
Some 7,000 civilians have already fled their homes amid fear of renewed hostilities.
Brig. Gen. Arnel Dela Vega, who heads Task Force Sulu, said that they will not back down.
“The more that we are hurt, the more that we are motivated to push on with our mandated task,” he said.
Army chief Maj. Gen. Eduardo Año said with conflicts with the communist and Moro rebels silenced by peace talks, the military can now focus on just one mission--to wipe out the Abu Sayyaf Group in Sulu and Basilan.
“We are conducting focused operations,” Año said Thursday.
The deployment of more troops in Sulu is part of the overall military strategy to put an end to the reign of terror of the ASG, he added.
“The intensity of operations since Aug. 26 has had substantial results already against the enemy. We’re even putting an additional three battalions in Sulu,” Año said.
The ASG has lost 30 fighters since the government offensive began, the military says.
The government, on the other hand, lost 15 soldiers in a single battle Monday.
Año said the incident is being investigated to find out what led to the casualties.
“Many of our troops were hit during the first burst of fire. At the time, it was getting dark and it was difficult for the toops to move,” he said in Filipino.
In Camp Aguinaldo, Padilla confirmed the arrival Wednesday of the 63rd IB in Sulu from Samar.
At present, about 8,000 soldiers or eight battalions have been deployed in Sulu alone to hunt down the terrorists. The strategy is to box in and constrict the terrorists in battle grounds away from civilian communities.
The military has estimated the number of ASG in Sulu to be more or less 200 but acknowledged also that the terror group’s mass base support is huge.
Rep. Rodolfo Biazon, a former military chief, urged the AFP to consider bringing in local government leaders in the all-out war against the ASG.
Biazon said that a successful campaign against the ASG in Sulu and Basilan needs the support of local officials and communities.
The latest offensive was the offshoot of the bandit group’s beheading of 18-year-old Patrick Jhames Almodavar last week.
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