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Government going ‘full force’ vs Abus after 15 soldiers killed

Christina Mendez - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines – President Duterte has ordered the military to go “full force” against the Abu Sayyaf amid the mounting casualties among troops fighting the bandit group since last week.

The bandits killed 15 government troops in fierce fighting late Monday in Patikul, Sulu.

Initial reports said the fatalities included two soldiers who were beheaded by the bandits in Barangay Maligay.

This, however, was denied by the military, saying the gunmen used the cell phones of the slain soldiers and sent text messages to their families about the purported beheadings.

Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said five more battalions would be deployed in the theater of operations.

“We are going full force in all-out operations against them. We are adding five battalions or about 2,500 people and they’ll only be in Sulu,” Abella said.

Abella said it was unfortunate that 15 soldiers were killed by the bandits in the government side’s largest single-day combat loss.

The military’s setback came after troops killed at least 22 Abu Sayyaf gunmen, including an influential commander, in the jungles of Patikul on Friday and Saturday in assaults that followed the beheading of a hostage.

Duterte ordered troops to hunt down and destroy the militants in their jungle bases last week after the extremists beheaded a kidnapped villager whose family was too poor to pay ransom.

“That’s why I sent the troops,” Duterte said, adding he can no longer tolerate the Abu Sayyaf’s barbaric activities.

Informed of the mounting casualties among the troops, Duterte said he is ready to accept the drawbacks of launching an all-out military campaign. 

“I know that there will be some reprisals, I’m ready for that. There’s always a drawback there but you know every time you do that, it’s a slap on the face of government,” Duterte said.

Abella said the President is bent on destroying the Abu Sayyaf down to the last man.

“Definitely the President is focused on making sure that the threat from the Abu Sayyaf should be terminated as soon as possible,” he said.

Abella said the current military actions are manifestations of the President’s campaign against the Abu Sayyaf.

“I believe the President is simply calling our attention to the fact that we should all be vigilant, especially because for example there are groups like terrorist groups like the Abu Sayyaf and he is concentrating full force against these,” Abella said.

On top of the 5,000 troops already based in Sulu and 2,500 in Basilan, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has pulled out troops from the Visayas, Luzon and other areas of Mindanao and deployed them to the two island provinces with the specific mission to seek and destroy the Abu Sayyaf.

The military’s Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) issued a statement on the deployment of additional troops.

“What you see is just the tip of the iceberg, more troops, more equipment and more firepower will be committed to destroy the Abu Sayyaf,” the Westmincom said.

Deadly text message

Westmincom spokesman Maj. Filemon Tan Jr. said two bandits were killed in last Monday’s encounter that also left 15 troops dead.

Five other soldiers were wounded in the nearly two-hour gunbattle.

Tan denied reports that two soldiers were beheaded by the bandits.

“All the military fatalities were accounted for and there is no truth to the claims of the Abu Sayyaf they beheaded some of our troopers,” he said.

Tan said a bandit used the cellphone of Pfc. Jison Falcasantos, one of the slain soldiers, and sent a text message to the victim’s family that they had beheaded him.

He added the troops have not sighted any of the hostages during the encounter in Patikul.

“The hostages were not sighted but knowing the group was there, there’s a high possibility that the victims were there,” he said.

A number of hostages are still being held by the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu, including Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad, Indonesian sailors and Dutch birdwatcher Ewold Horn who was kidnapped in the high seas off Tawi-Tawi in February 2012.

Tan also explained the high number of troop casualties was due to the difficult terrain.

“The Abu Sayyaf group has mastery of the terrain and they knew the fields of fire and were on the edge of the terrain,” he said.

Tan said troops from the Army’s 35th Infantry Battalion initially clashed with 70 Abu Sayyaf gunmen led by senior leader Radullan Sahiron.

However, the bandits grew in number up to more than 120 gunmen as the fighting continued.

Tan stressed the government casualties were not just from a single encounter but from the series of clashes with the bandits that dragged on for almost two hours.

Tan said the Abu Sayyaf had 30 casualties and 11 wounded while the government suffered 15 killed and 29 wounded in clashes since Thursday last week.

According to Tan, the troops were running after 481 Abu Sayyaf gunmen who were identified by validated reports.

AFP Public Affairs Office chief Col. Edgard Arevalo said the military has enough troops to enforce the President’s order to crush the Abu Sayyaf.

Asked if the soldiers were outnumbered in last Monday’s fighting, Arevalo only said combined troops from the Army’s 21st and 35th Infantry Battalions encountered a big number of heavily armed bandits in Patikul.

He said the Abu Sayyaf are using the terrain to their advantage, engaging government troops from higher ground.

“We are not facing ordinary enemies. We definitely have the superiority of training, superiority in armaments but they are not giving our soldiers an easy fight,” Arevalo said.

Arevalo cited field reports that some of the bandits were high on drugs when they engaged the troops in a firefight in last Monday’s clashes.

AFP spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said the fighting resumed yesterday with the troops on a mission to launch an all out offensive and further decimate the Abu Sayyaf.

“To date, 30 Abu Sayyaf gunmen have been killed to include those slain in this morning’s (yesterday) fighting,” Padilla said.

Westmincom warned any group or civilians found to be aiding the Abu Sayyaf will be included in the military’s target list.

“The momentum is on our side and we will continue this fight until we accomplish the mission. Those who are aiding the Abu Sayyaf will be dealt with by the AFP,” Tan said. – Roel Pareño, Jaime Laude, Perseus Echeminada

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