Fighting erupts in Basilan
Rosalinda L. Orosa (The Philippine Star) - April 12, 2014 - 12:00am

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines – Twenty soldiers were wounded and three terrorists killed when troops attacked an Abu Sayyaf band trying to extort money from the contractor of a key road project in a remote barangay in Tipo-Tipo, Basilan yesterday.

Eight soldiers were airlifted to a military hospital, but most of them suffered only slight wounds.

It was the first major encounter between security forces and threat groups in Mindanao since a peace agreement was signed by the government with the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Government troops could not advance rapidly toward the Abu Sayyaf lairs because they had to pass near communities of the MILF.

Under a ceasefire accord with the government, security forces have to coordinate their presence with the MILF when pursuing the Abu Sayyaf to avoid accidental clashes.

Two separate gun battles erupted at about 2:25 a.m. in Sitio Kurelem, Barangay Silangkum, Tipo-Tipo yesterday.

Government forces initially clashed with a group of more than 30 Abu Sayyaf fighters, who were later reinforced by two separate groups of more than 30 gunmen.

Army 104th Brigade commander Brig. Gen. Carlito Galvez said troops moved in after Abu Sayyaf commander Puruji Indama and his men threatened and tried to extort money from workers at a road project in Basilan.

“We’re still pursuing the Abu Sayyaf and there is sporadic fighting and sniping,’” Galvez said. 

Capt. Ma. Rowena Muyuela, Armed Forces Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) spokesperson, said the military operation was aimed at neutralizing Indama’s band that was extorting money from contractors building the last section of the Basilan circumferential road network.

“The operation was purposely to clear Tipo-Tipo and Albarka of Abu Sayyaf influence to pave the way for the normalization and development of these depressed areas,” she said.  

Armed Forces spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said about 200 soldiers were deployed before dawn to assault gunmen led by Indama. Army Scout Rangers and troops from the 18th Infantry Battalion spearheaded the attack.

Capt. Richard Enciso, spokesman for 104th Army Brigade based in Basilan, said eight soldiers were initially wounded, but as fighting raged during the day, another 10 were also wounded.

“Operation is ongoing to get Puruji Indama and his group,” he said. Westmincom commander Lt. Gen. Rustico Guerrero said they have committed all available air and naval assets to support the offensive to seize Abu Sayyaf terrorists in Basilan.

The military said Indama’s men have regrouped with commanders Nurhassan Jamiri and Basir Sakaran and occupied the school at Sitio Kurelem about 9 a.m. yesterday.

Alton Angeles, Tipo-Tipo municipal planning coordinator, said the Abu Sayyaf has been using the school to recruit new members.

More than 60 Abu Sayyaf gunmen took cover in the school, but it was not clear if they took hostages or if they have left, Galvez said. – Roel Pareño, Jaime Laude, AP



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