MANILA, Philippines - Two main camps of the Abu Sayyaf group were overrun by forces of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in its latest offensive in Patikul, Sulu yesterday.
MNLF commander Ustadz Habier Malik said his forces were able to overrun two camps of the Abu Sayyaf but were not able to recover the Jordanian journalist taken hostage by the bandit group.
Malik said the MNLF fighters overran Kuta Masarin camp under Abu Sayyaf leader Habib Hajan Sawajaan and the second camp fell on the fourth day of their offensive against the bandit group believed to be holding Jordanian Baker Abdulla Atyani.
“We have occupied their stronghold,” Malik said. “But we were not able to find Atyani or anyone from the group holding him hostage.”
Malik said they have no idea on the whereabouts of Atyani.
“There were reports that he was allowed to go home to Jordan, but these are speculations,” he said.
There were reports circulating in Sulu that a day before the encounter last Sunday, a speedboat with six gunmen on board landed on a beach in Sitio Parang-Parang in Barangay Maglibak, Patikul.
Sources said the gunmen handed over bags believed to be loaded with cash to another group and left with a foreigner.
It was not clear, according to the source, if the foreigner was Atyani.
Malik said they would not speculate on the information.
The military also said they have not received any information that Atyani had been released.
“We have not seen reports that he (Atyani) has been freed,” Col. Orlando de Leon, commander of the 2nd Marine Brigade based in Sulu.
De Leon, however, was evasive when asked whether Atyani was still with the Abu Sayyaf.
“When it comes to the kidnap victims, the primary unit involved in the tracking is the anti-kidnapping group so they are in the position to give you the data,” he said.
Asked to confirm reports that a P100-million ransom was paid to secure Atyani’s freedom, De Leon said: “I do not have any way to know whether the P100 million was paid.”
Malik, on the other hand, said the Abu Sayyaf suffered 18 fatalities with three others severely wounded from their attack, bringing the total Abu Sayyaf casualties to 21.
“The confirmation came from the Abu Sayyaf themselves,” he said.
Malik said the fighting ceased as the Abu Sayyaf have split into smaller groups to escape.
Malik said his forces are now monitoring the whereabouts of the Abu Sayyaf gunmen who figured in the encounter.
Malik also asked his leaders to coordinate with the relatives of slain Abu Sayyaf members and explain the circumstances of their operation.
“We will explain it to them why this happened. We will discuss with them why we have to stop their illegal activities,” he said.
Malik appealed to the relatives and families of the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu not to condone their criminal activity.
Malik also clarified the offensive was not to occupy the camps of the Abu Sayyaf but to negotiate with them to convince them stop their kidnapping activity.
“But they refused to heed us so we decided to force the issue. We tried to convince them a long time ago (to release the hostages) but they still wanted to continue,” Malik said.
“The last time I talked to them, they said they would rather die than give up their hostages,” he said.
Malacañang, on the other hand, said the government will enforce the law once civilians are affected by the ongoing fighting between and MNLF and the Abu Sayyaf.
Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office Secretary Ricky Carandang explained that aside from removing the civilians from harm’s way, the military will ensure that there will be no spillover of the conflict in Sulu.
The MNLF, which forged a peace deal with the government in 1996, has to explain later its recent actions against the Abu Sayyaf, Carandang said.
“Everybody has to follow the law and the law will be enforced but, as I said (Thursday), the most important thing right now is for us to ensure the safety of the civilians,” he said.
Carandang said “innocent people” have nothing do with the fighting and they were the most vulnerable to danger.
“Later on, we’ll deal with the issues of law enforcement and what has to be done,” he said.
Asked by reporters if the MNLF should have coordinated with the military in launching its attack against the Abu Sayyaf, Carandang replied that the President did not sanction MNLF’s Sulu operations.
“As the President said, that’s not sanctioned. So we just need to wait until the first priority has been dealt with before we deal with other things,” Carandang said.
The military said it would deploy troops in areas in Sulu to contain the fighting.
Reports said eight MNLF fighters were killed and beheaded by the Abu Sayyaf while 18 of the bandits were confirmed dead in the fighting that started Saturday.
“I’m not sure what’s going to happen next in the process but, we need to take care of the civilians first and then, how to stop this is something we’ll deal with later on. But we need to contain it and make sure that nobody innocent gets hurt by this. I’m sure that at some point, some explanations will be made,” Carandang said.
MNLF chairman Nur Misuari, on the other hand, will be arriving today from Cairo following a meeting with officials of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
His aide who declined to be named because he is not authorized to issue any statements, said Misuari will hold a press conference to make important announcement on the actual situation in the crackdown against Abu Sayyaf bandits in Sulu.
“Chairman Nur will clarify some issue regarding the Sulu incident,” the aide said.
The controversy erupted after 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.
But authorities, including the MNLF, denied rescuing three hostages from the bandits.
Fontanilla told The STAR that he was only relaying the messages sent by Misuari on the situation in Sulu.
He also clarified the ongoing MNLF offensive against Abu Sayyaf formed part of the final peace agreement with the government in 1996.
A lawyer of the MNLF who declined to be identified said the military and police commanders in Mindanao are aware of the existing agreement that the MNLF will not give sanctuary to criminal elements in their communities. -Aurea Calica, Alexis Romero, Perseus Echeminada, Pia Lee-Brago