Troops thwart Abus in Bohol; 9 killed

Jaime Laude - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - Five suspected members of the terror group Abu Sayyaf were killed in a gun battle with security forces in Bohol, days after the United States, Australia and Canada alerted their citizens to possible kidnapping by militants in the province, one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations.

The United Kingdom – through its Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) – yesterday issued its own travel advisory to its citizens, citing “high threat” of terrorism in the Philippines, especially in some parts of the Visayas and Mindanao.

“The FCO advise against all but essential travel to the remainder of Mindanao and to the south of Cebu province, up to and including the municipalities of Dalaguete and Badian, due to the threat of terrorism,” the FCO said.

Initial reports said three soldiers and a policeman were also killed in the fighting in the outskirts of Barangay Napo, Inabanga.

The Army’s 47th Infantry Battalion along with local police first clashed with the terrorists headed by Muammar Askali, alias Abu Rami, along the riverside of Sitio Ilaya in Inabanga town.

If it was indeed the Abu Sayyaf that clashed with security forces, it would be the first recorded major foray of the terror group into the Visayas region, far from their strongholds in Jolo and Basilan.

The Abu Sayyaf is currently holding more than two dozen captives in the island of Jolo.

Security forces launched the operation against the bandits after receiving intelligence that a heavily armed group of 10 people was seen on three boats in the area, Armed Forces chief Gen. Eduardo Año said.

The group’s motive for traveling to Bohol was not known. They were cornered in an isolated section of the town.

“Combined government security, acting on received intelligence information, encountered a group of heavily armed lawless elements in Sitio Ilaya, Barangay Napo, Inabanga, Bohol,” Año said.

He added a soldier and a policeman were also wounded in the clashes reportedly still raging as of yesterday afternoon.

The travel advisories issued by the US, Australia and Canada also cover Cebu, another popular tourist destination.

Tourists have started arriving in the two provinces as well as in other tourist destinations as the country goes on break for the Holy Week.

Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla, AFP spokesman, said fighting broke out at around 7 a.m.

“Security forces reported the group is well armed with heavy caliber weapons,” Padilla said.

Air Force and naval assets were deployed to assist in the operations, said Padilla.

An undetermined number of bandits reportedly holed up in three houses as Air Force planes bombed the area.

Three soldiers and a policeman died in the heavy fighting, said Lt. Col. Ericson Rosana, spokesman for the Capiz-based 3rd Infantry Division.

Rosana said an Air Force plane launched an airstrike on the bandits’ location as a Navy gunboat was deployed to block the terrorists’ possible exit route.

Three M16 rifles and an M14 assault rifle as well as an improvised explosive device (IED) placed inside a sack were recovered from the slain bandits.

“On behalf of the combined forces of the AFP and the PNP in the Visayas, we want to congratulate our people in Bohol who made a brave stand to defend themselves against the threat of terrorism,” Cebu-based Central Command (Centcom) chief Lt. Gen. Oscar Lactao and Central Visayas police regional director Chief Supt. Noli Taliño declared in a statement.

Aside from being close to Cebu where various international events are being held in line with the Philippines’ chairmanship and hosting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit this year, Bohol is one of the favorite tourist destinations in the Visayas.

“We are still trying to determine their motive as to why they were in Bohol. The intelligence information that we’ve got was that the group arrived Sunday night and it was immediately reported to us,” said military spokesman Col. Edgard Arevalo.

“We have received a report that five of the enemies were killed and we have also recovered from them four high-powered firearms,” he said earlier yesterday.

“But sadly, three on the government side were also killed, while two others were wounded.”

Deeper probe

Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Director General Ronald dela Rosa said it was not clear yet if the Bohol incident was related to an earlier security threat monitored by his men.

He said the Central Visayas and the Bohol Provincial Police are now looking deeper into the incident.

“We can’t tell yet because the threat is generic, general and not specific. If it’s confirmed that it was the Abu Sayyaf, then we can confirm that their purpose is to kidnap in Cebu and Bohol, then that’s it,” Dela Rosa told reporters.

He stressed there was no cause for alarm as the police and military were able to thwart possible attacks by the terror group. The PNP chief said he was still waiting for comprehensive reports from the field.

“So far I had just talked to our man on the ground, Bohol Police chief Senior Supt. Felipe Natividad, and he reported to me that there were dead and wounded,” he said.

Capt. Jo-Ann Petinglay, spokesperson for the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom), said intelligence sharing led to the discovery of the Abu Sayyaf kidnapping plot in Bohol.

“So we alerted Central Command, that’s why they raised the alert. We cannot just ascertain the exact date as to when the Abu Sayyaf group will hatch their plot,” Petinglay said.

Westmincom chief Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr. noted that previous kidnappings by the Abu Sayyaf, like the one in Sipadan in Malaysia and Dos Palmas in Palawan, were carried out around Easter.

Petinglay said the Abu Sayyaf might have moved their kidnapping activities outside the Sulu and Basilan areas because of the relentless operations against them by government security forces.

“That’s why we are on alert during this Lent,” Petinglay added. 

She also reported that eight government militia members have been killed in fighting with the Abu Sayyaf in the mountains of Sumisip, Basilan.

The arrival of the bandits in Bohol came barely a week before the holding of the second part of the ASEAN ministerial meetings in Panglao scheduled on April 19 to 22.

While the military said it could only confirm the arrival of 10 of the Sulu-based bandits in Bohol, more of them could already be in the province scouting for victims.

Early this month, government troops killed more than 10 Abu Sayyaf militants in an attempt to free Vietnamese captives.

Abu Sayyaf, which means “bearer of the sword,” earlier this year beheaded a German hostage and two Canadian captives suffered the same fate last year. They were executed when deadlines to pay ransom expired.

President Duterte said the Islamic State (IS) is trying to gain a foothold in Mindanao, where many towns are impoverished and underdeveloped.

He has pleaded with Philippine separatist groups to reject advances of extremists.

The military has been engaged in large-scale offensives against the Abu Sayyaf but progress has been hampered by the presence of civilians in its strongholds in Jolo and Basilan islands.

Travel advisory

In its travel advisory, Britiain’s FCO also advised against all travel to western Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago because of terrorist activity and clashes between the military and insurgent groups.

The FCO warned that terrorist groups continue to plan attacks and have the capacity and the intent to carry them out at any time and anywhere in the country.

Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners like airports, shopping malls, public transport and places of worship.

“You should remain vigilant at all times and report anything suspicious to the local authorities,” it said.

The advisory said there has been an increase in kidnapping of foreign nationals, including attacks targeting foreigners and tourists, since late 2015. Multiple attacks occurred in November 2016. Terrorist groups continue to plan kidnap operations against western nationals in the Philippines.

“This threat extends throughout the Philippines, both on land and at sea, but is particularly acute in the southern Philippines (Mindanao, southern Palawan and central Visayas, including Siquijor and Dumaguete),” it said.

The FCO cited the travel advisory issued by the US embassy in Manila on April 9 regarding an “unsubstantiated yet credible information it received that terrorist groups may attempt to conduct kidnappings in Central Visayas, which includes both Cebu and Bohol provinces.”

“You should be especially vigilant in these areas,” the FCO said.  – With Roel Pareño, Cecille Suerte Felipe

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