ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines — Government security forces killed two ranking Abu Sayyaf bandits during a clash in Basilan province Thursday morning as the military widens its search for kidnapped Italian priest Giancarlo Bossi.
Brigadier General Ramiro Alivio, commander of the 1st Marine Brigade, said soldiers of the Marine Battalion Landing Team 8 (MBLT8) were scouring Barangay (village) Bohe Bessey in Akbar town when they encountered about 30 Abu Sayyaf bandits around 10 a.m.
Alivio identified the slain bandits as a certain Panjang and a Ladji Mohammad, the group’s two commanders.
Panjang and Mohammad were sub-commanders of former Abu Sayyaf leader Suhod Tanajalin, a follower of slain Abu Sayyaf spokesman Abu Sabaya. Tanajalin had been arrested and was being detained at the Basilan provincial jail, according to information relayed to the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
“Their bodies have been recovered along with M-14 and M-16 rifles and an M-177 machine gun with substantial amount of ammunition,” Alivio said.
Alivio said the government suffered no casualty.
Colonel Felix Almadrones, MBLT 8 commander, said it was actually a chance encounter.
He said they were ordered to launch a search-and-rescue operation for Bossi in Basilan as the military was trying to widen the scope of the operation in an attempt to find the missing priest.
“The operation was in support of the directive in anticipation that the kidnapped priest and his captors might be in the area,” Almadrones said.
He said Akbar town, which was then part of Tuburan town, was a known “landing area” for the Abu Sayyaf whenever they kidnapped somebody from other parts of Mindanao.
Among the victims brought to Akbar town were Belgian nationals Lieven dela Marche and Erick Bracke, who were kidnapped in Zamboanga City in June 1999.
Martin and Gracia Burnham and other victims of the 2001 Dos Palmas kidnapping, including American Guillermo Sobero, were also brought near Bohe Bessey.
Major General Nehemias Pajarito, chief of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division based in Zamboanga del Sur, has said that Bossi and his abductors could not be found in the boundaries of Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur.
The military said the Lanao operations, which lasted for more than three weeks, were conducted after receiving reports Bossi had been brought there.
Pajarito said the search and rescue operations have now shifted to the boundaries of Zamboanga Sibugay, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte and Zamboanga City after the Lanao operations failed to yield positive results.
“Why is it so difficult to find a big, tall Caucasian man in areas where he is supposedly a familiar face to almost everyone?” Father Gianni Battista Sandalo, the regional superior of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), asked.
Sandalo said what he could not understand was why it was so hard for authorities to locate Bossi, who is a familiar face in the Zamboanga Peninsula.
Father Luciano Benedetti, also of the PIME, said Bossi knows the peninsula, including the remote villages, its leaders and residents.
Bossi is more than six feet tall and weighs about 115 kilos, Benedetti said.
But Benedetti said with Bossi’s age of 57, “he easily gets tired.”
Colonel Jovencio Magalso, Task Force Bossi chief said however that “if the kidnappers are determined to keep him [Bossi] away from the public’s eye, they can do so.”
Magalso said they suspected the kidnappers had hidden Bossi in some makeshift shelters in the coastal towns of the peninsula.
“Given all the characteristics of the priest and his features, the kidnappers will definitely try their best to hide him,” Magalso.
Magalso added that they have printed thousands of leaflets and posters with Bossi’s photos on it and had these distributed to the different towns “so even ordinary people can help us locate him.”
He said the Task Force had received several information but “all we need is an eyewitness and it will be easy for us to determine if the priest and the kidnappers passed by a certain area.”