MANILA, Philippines — Troops in Basilan are advancing towards the positions of the attackers of a Marine convoy last week, Military Chief General Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said Tuesday.
Esperon said the attackers were carrying “high-powered firearms.”
Esperon said soldiers have also been “pre-positioned” in other areas to avoid a spillover of violence.
Esperon has given the green light for “punitive actions” against those who killed 14 Marines, 10 of who were beheaded, after the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) refused to yield the perpetrators last Sunday, the deadline he gave.
Asked if troops were advancing towards the positions of the attackers, the military chief said: “You can say that, but there are also forces that have to pre-positioned to take care of spill over [of violence]. We don’t want a spill over.”
He said the “targets,” numbering around 20, were armed with FN Minimi squad automatic weapons, or mini machine guns, and M16 rifles which they took from the Marines during the encounter in Al Barkah town last July 10.
“I’ve lost count. It’s many,” Esperon told reporters late Monday, when asked how many firearms had been carted away from the Marines.
The MILF has owned up to the attack on the Marines, saying the troops had encroached on its territory, but denied involvement in the beheadings.
At the same time, the MILF said it was ready to go to war if attacked.
“Somehow, something must give in. I will not threaten but our purpose here is simply to punish the perpetrators of the barbaric act,” Esperon said, when asked if troops would attack the MILF if they got in the way of pursuit operations.
“If we do not punish the beheaders there would be future beheaders because they will think that beheading people is perfectly alright,” he said.
But Esperon said he was hoping that there could be “positive developments” so that both the military and the MILF could “avoid heavier casualties and penalty.”
Asked if the military offensive would stop if the MILF surrendered the Marines’ attackers, even after his deadline had expired, Esperon said: “We’ll see. We’ll see.”
Some 5,000 soldiers in the island province of Basilan, mostly from the Marine Corps, are involved in the hunt for those who killed their comrades. Naval and air assets have also been readied for possible deployment.