ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines â€“ The Abu Sayyaf has split into smaller groups as a tactical maneuver against the bigger forces of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which is preparing a major assault, a ranking MNLF official said yesterday.
Habib Muadjahab Hashim, one of the MNLF senior leaders of the central committee and chairman of the Islamic Command Council (ICC), said villagers in the area of Patikul, Sulu have refused to return home for fear of getting caught in the clashes between the MNLF and Abu Sayyaf.
Hashim said there are fears among the villagers that the Abu Sayyaf is splitting into smaller groups to escalate the hostility and to be less visible against the bigger MNLF.
MNLF forces under Habier Malik have grouped in Barangay Buhanginan, Patikul town near the jungle lair of Abu Sayyaf leader Radullan Sahiron since Tuesday after fighting halted and left more than 30 dead on both sides.
Hashim said hundreds of MNLF forces under Malik are gearing up for â€œa final assaultâ€ against the Abu Sayyaf.
At the same time, Hashim denied reports that they rescued three foreign hostages from the Abu Sayyaf during the clashes.
A certain Emmanuel Fontanilla, who identified himself as spokesman for the MNLF, reportedly announced over a Manila-based radio station that they rescued three foreigners from the Abu Sayyaf.
Fontanilla also claimed fatalities in the conflict have risen to 31, consisting of eight MNLF members and 23 Abu Sayyaf militants. He also revealed that at least nine Abu Sayyaf bandits and seven MNLF fighters have been wounded in the latest clashes.
â€œHopefully it was true but there is no such report of rescued foreign captives by the MNLF forces under Ustadz Habier Malik,â€ Hashim said.
Hashim also denied having a certain Fontanilla as spokesman for the MNLF.
Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Gen. Emmanuel Bautista also denied the reports.
Bautista also belied reports that more fighting occurred after last Sundayâ€™s clash.
â€œWe have not received such report. We just came from Jolo and the fighting happened there Sunday morning. No fighting occurred after that,â€ Bautista told radio dzRH.
Bautista said he does not know who this Fontanilla is. â€œThis is the first time I heard that name,â€ he said.
Bautista also denied Fontanillaâ€™s statement that the MNLF overran a camp of the Abu Sayyaf.
He said soldiers are in the area on a mission to implement measures to prevent a spillover of the conflict.
â€œWe are also helping the evacuees together with the DSWD (Department of Social Welfare and Development) and the local government,â€ Bautista said.
Authorities said there are five foreigners still held in Sulu: Elwold Horn from Holland, Lorenzo Vinceguerre of Switzerland, Australian Warren Richard Rodwell, Jordanian Baker Abdulla Atyani, and Japanese Toshio Ito.
Horn and Vinceguerre, both wild bird watchers, were taken on Feb. 1, 2012 in Tawi-Tawi; Rodwell was seized from his house in Ipil, Zamboanga Sibugay on Dec. 5, 2011; Atyani and his two Filipino companions were snatched in June 2012; and Toshio, who is considered to be the longest foreigner held captive by the Abu Sayyaf, was taken in July 2010.
Atyaniâ€™s companions Rolando Letrero and Ramelito Vela were freed by the Abu Sayyaf last Saturday but the MNLF failed to secure the freedom of Atyani.
Hashim said the MNLF forces under Malik are still in the area preparing to lay siege on the Abu Sayyaf to free Atyani.
â€œWe hope hostages are freed so that the tension between the two forces will ease up,â€ Hashim said.
As this developed, the Department of Justice (DOJ) cleared 18 men earlier arrested and suspected to be Abu Sayyaf bandits involved in the abduction of six members of the Jehovahâ€™s Witnesses and beheading two of them in Patikul in 2002.
A reinvestigation by the DOJ Task Force on Anti-Terrorism showed 18 of the 21 accused standing trial before the Pasig City regional trial court were wrongfully arrested and indicted for the case.
It was found that many of them were fall guys. They were identified as Ustadz Ahmadsali, Asmad Badron, Hajer Arasani, Jammal Sawaban, Robin Sahiyal, Alton Ladhalaam, Edwin Siarot Sawaldi, Mohammad Said Sali, Adzhar Nawali Hamsajun, Abdullan Hussih, George Nami, Abdullah Ussih, Jeheri Jeron and Manny Ismael.
Prosecutors found out during a hearing last December that they were not the persons earlier charged in court.
Five others were cleared due to lack of ample evidence. They are Jumlie Orie, Jul Ahmad Ahadi, Arabi Sali, Sonny Boy Barakim and Abdulwahab Hamja.
While the 13 accused may be members of the Abu Sayyaf, the DOJ said there is no sufficient evidence that they participated in any capacity in the kidnapping of the six members of the religious group, or in the beheading of two of its members.
â€œThe purpose of a preliminary investigation is to secure the innocent against hasty, malicious and oppressive prosecution, and to protect one from an open and public accusation of crime... It is therefore imperative upon agencies tasked with the preliminary investigation and prosecution of crimes to relieve any person from the trauma of going through a trial once it is ascertained that the evidence is insufficient to sustain a prima facie case or that no probable cause exists to form a sufficient belief as to the guilt of the accused,â€ read the 12-page DOJ resolution released yesterday.
The panel said there appears to be no proof that they took part in the kidnapping, much less evidence of their purported membership in the Abu Sayyaf as they were not positively identified by prosecution witnesses.
On the other hand, the DOJ affirmed the indictment of the three other accused, identified as Mujibar Alih Amon Julhasan Jaani and Absar/Mansar Mangkobang Asim. The panel said they were positively identified by the victims.
The DOJ conducted reinvestigation in December last year following the request of some of the accused who insisted on their innocence. They said they were randomly arrested by military officers based on erroneous intelligence data.
It was found that security forces arrested several people for just one name.
Records showed that the victims â€“ four females and two males â€“ were doing door-to-door sale of cosmetic products in August 2002 when Abu Sayyaf bandits seized them. â€“ Alexis Romero, Edu Punay