Arroyo sends 4,000 soldiers to hunt Abus
MANILA, Philippines—A month after 10 Marines were beheaded, government forces suffered some of their heaviest casualties in decades—26 dead—in clashes with Moro guerrillas in Sulu that prompted demands from Congress for the military to explain why they were being clobbered in the battlefield.
“As far as I can remember, this is our biggest casualty in a day,” Armed Forces spokesperson Lt. Col. Bartolome Bacarro said.
Counting military reports that 31 of the guerrillas were also killed, the death toll from the series of clashes in Maimbung and nearby areas on Jolo Island stood on Friday at 57.
Outraged by the death of the soldiers, President Macapagal-Arroyo ordered the military to hunt down the attackers and directed relief agencies to attend to thousands of displaced civilians.
The military said the attackers included the Abu Sayyaf bandits and rogue elements within the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a separatist group with which the government signed a peace deal in 1996.
The 26 military fatalities included 10 soldiers killed during an ambush in Maimbung on Thursday morning and 15 more soldiers killed in a separate gunbattle hours later 7 km from the site of the first encounter, the military said. One of the fatalities was a military officer.
Another soldier was killed in an earlier encounter in Parang town.
Seventeen soldiers and 25 Moro gunmen were wounded in the encounters, the military said.
The soldiers killed in the Thursday morning ambush had retrieved the body of a soldier slain in an earlier clash and were bringing it to the pier when they were attacked.
Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said the military expected “more fierce fighting” in Sulu in the coming days.
At the Senate, lawmakers said the military must explain its latest debacle, which occurred a full month after 14 Marines were killed—10 of them beheaded—in an ambush on Basilan Island on July 10. The military had also blamed that ambush on the Abu Sayyaf.
“What is happening in our Armed Forces?” said Senate Majority Leader Francis Pangilinan. “The buck stops with General Esperon. (He should) explain why we are being clobbered in the field.”
“Are we sending our young men out to die in the fields because of the incompetence of their superiors?” Pangilinan said, adding Esperon should publicly explain “why we are facing a string of setbacks despite the billions being poured into the military establishment year after year.”
The military said it was fielding two more battalions, roughly 1,000 men, in Sulu to help in the pursuit of its quarry.
This would bring to about 4,000 the number of soldiers in that area, pitted against some 200 Abu Sayyaf bandits and their allies.
“I’m very sad about it,” Esperon said of the heavy casualties. “It brings memories of one of the encounters I had when I was a lieutenant when we had similar numbers of casualties.”
He added: “We are not going to give up because we have suffered casualties.”
Esperon said suffering casualties in military operations was expected.
“These are the people who have been beheading people in Sulu and so we want to go after them even at the expense of the lives of our soldiers because that’s our duty,” he said.
“We will not stop. We will go after them, we will continue to go after them.”
He said Ms Arroyo was “very concerned” with what had happened and instructed him to “assess and review some things.”
Esperon plans to go to Sulu and Basilan on Monday to make the assessment.
Task Force Comet, the group implementing the so-called Oplan Ultimatum 2 aimed at stamping out the Abu Sayyaf, started its offensive against the group last Aug. 2.
Bacarro said a series of four encounters had occurred in Sulu since Aug. 8 when the military renewed its offensive against the Abu Sayyaf Group in the towns of Indanan, Maimbung and Parang following tips from civilians that high value targets were in the area.
He said they were verifying reports that among the dead was the son of Abu Sayyaf leader Dr. Abu Pula.
3 Abu leaders
Bacarro stressed that of the four incidents the past three days, three were initiated by the military.
In Thursday’s second gun battle, where 15 soldiers died, the government forces encountered 120 Abu Sayyaf members and some MNLF elements at Barangay Tambaking in Maimbung.
Explaining the big number of casualties in that incident, Bacarro said the military clashed with a big group headed by three Abu Sayyaf leaders—Radullan Sahiron, Dr. Abu and Albader Parad.
He said the first encounter happened on Aug. 7 when soldiers encountered 50 Abu Sayyaf members in Indanan that resulted in the wounding of two Marines.
The second incident happened on Aug. 8 when Alpha company of the 33rd Infantry Battalion engaged about 40 to 50 Abu Sayyaf members. A soldier was killed while five others were wounded in that clash.
In that incident, four ASG members were killed, reportedly including the son of Abu Pula and a subcommander.
Bacarro said the military committed no lapses as “ we were the ones who initiated the engagement.”
MNLF vice chair Hatimil Hassan said the MNLF was surprised why the military was insisting that those involved in the clashes were Abu Sayyaf bandits.
Hassan said MNLF forces were the ones engaging the military since Tuesday in retaliation for the death of MNLF commander Jihli Habbi and four others.
He said the military on Tuesday and Wednesday shelled Sampunay village in Parang and later assaulted an MNLF camp there, killing Habbi and several others, including a minor.
“Although under attack, our forces on the ground have not declared jihad (holy war). Right now, separate fighting is ongoing in the towns of Parang, Maimbung and Indanan,” Hassan said.
Appeal to OIC
Hassan said by their count, at least 30 soldiers had died since the fighting began. The MNLF, he said, lost seven members including Habbi.
Hassan said the MNLF did not want the crisis to go out of hand and they were appealing to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to intervene.
The OIC brokered the 1996 peace deal between the government and the MNLF.
“We informed the OIC of the current situation through e-mails and fax direct to Jeddah,” Hassan said. “We requested them to intervene in the fighting that may escalate to other municipalities of Sulu.”
Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan could hardly control his anger as thousands of families fled their homes, leaving behind their potential harvests.
“My understanding with (Maj.) Gen. (Reuben) Rafael was that the operation will only be focused in one area, but apparently it already escalated to other municipalities,” Tan told the Inquirer by phone.
He was referring to the chief of the Task Force Comet.
“Rafael will have to give us an assessment of the situation. If he cannot control the situation, then he might as well pull out from the operation and reassess their position,” a fuming Tan said.
He said that when he talked to Rafael a few days ago, he was assured that the military operation against the Abu Sayyaf would only be confined in the town of Indanan.
But clashes have spread to Parang and Maimbung towns as well, dragging the MNLF into the fray.
“General Rafael has to explain why the operation escalated to other towns, he has to shed light on this and somebody has to take responsibility for all of these,” Tan said.