Bodies of 13 Marines flown to Manila
MANILA, Philippines — The military Monday spurned Church calls for an end to its bloody offensive against the Abu Sayyaf, even as comrades of 15 Marines killed in clashes with the bandit group last weekend revealed that they had fought with Moro gunmen as young as 15 years old.
Amid outrage in the government over the recent series of military setbacks in Mindanao, hundreds of mourners buried at noon a 22-year-old Army lieutenant slain in a separate gun battle with the bandit group in Sulu province 10 days ago.
Second Lt. Charlie Anthony Camelon was laid to rest in his hometown of Mauban, Quezon, to the sobbing of grieving relatives, the roll of drums and a bugler’s playing of “taps.”
“The operations will continue unabated, unceasing,” Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro told reporters.
“We have to apply the law. The instruction of the President is to continue the preparation for the total security of Mindanao.”
Teodoro spoke as a C-130 transport plane carrying the bodies of 13 of the 15 soldiers killed in clashes with the Abu Sayyaf last weekend arrived at Villamor Air Base in Pasay City Monday night.
“I understand the position of the bishops but we must also understand that we are fighting terrorists here,” Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Hermogenes Esperon said. “There’s no way but to continue the operations against the Abu Sayyaf.”
“We will explain our position to the bishops,” Esperon added.
Teodoro and Esperon made the statements after Basilan’s Roman Catholic Bishop Martin Jumoad and a nationwide association of priests and nuns appealed to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for an end to the bloodbath. The bishop said the death of the young soldiers — ranging in age from 22 to 24 — was a waste of lives.
In Zamboanga City, 2nd Lt. Jordan Argete, who was with the Marines killed in Saturday’s Basilan battle, admitted to reporters that the Abu Sayyaf had the edge of fighting from high ground, were “fully armed with heavy type of weapons and they were all young, as young as 15 years old.”
Argete and fellow Marine officers 1st Lt. Rowan Rimas and 2nd Lt. Paolo Jose Jandusay denied they were caught “like sitting ducks” during the Basilan clash, as a town mayor had recounted on tape to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, parent company of INQUIRER.net.
Rimas admitted that he and his men were in a “dehado (disadvantaged) situation” when they encountered the bandit group linked to Osama bin Laden’s global terror network.
Familiar with terrain
Jandusay said: “The enemy had memorized the terrain, it was their area.”
Western Mindanao Command chief Lt. Gen. Eugenio Cedo lashed out at the Inquirer for reporting the lapses in Saturday’s clash in Unkaya Pukan town in Basilan.
Instead of explaining the factors behind the biggest number of casualties under his watch — a total of seven officers and 50 enlisted personnel killed a little over a month — Cedo ignored questions from reporters and called the Inquirer report incorrect.
Cedo left immediately without taking his angry eyes off the Inquirer correspondent as the other reporters fell quiet at the general’s outburst.
Recorded on tape
The Inquirer story was based on an interview with Unkaya Pukan Mayor Joel Maturan, who said on tape that the soldiers were “pinagbabaril na parang ibon (shot at like birds)” by the Abu Sayyaf.
Speaking in the company of military officers at Edwin Andrews Air Base, Maturan Monday disowned his taped remarks.
He said what he told the Inquirer was that members of the Abu Sayyaf Group were positioned on higher ground and enjoyed the cover of heavy foliage and boulders, unlike the Marines who were positioned below.
“What I said was that the Abu Sayyaf were just meters away … Because of their bravery, many Marines died,” Maturan said in Filipino, retracting his earlier statements.
Theories not enough
The three Marine officers agreed that mastery of the terrain favored the bandit group.
Jandusay said that “many of my classmates were so young, fresh graduates from the basic school for Marines.”
He said he and his fellow officers were new graduates from the Philippine Military Academy and lacked experience. He said they had learned theories on fighting “but you cannot obtain experience from training.”
“We are complete with theories but we still need maturity when it comes to fighting (kailangan namin ng kaunting gulang pagdating sa laban),” he said.
Heads must roll
In Manila, opposition Sen. Francis Escudero called on Ms Arroyo to fire incompetent and disloyal officers to ensure “tangible results” from the continued deployment of warm bodies to Mindanao.
“They should sack incompetent and disloyal officers, should there be any. Another is to investigate thoroughly all government officials, elected or appointed, for complicity with the enemy, however close they may be to the administration party.”
Sen. Rodolfo Biazon blamed defective weapons and poor intelligence for the military debacles, while jailed Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV claimed some officials whom he did not identify had connived with the enemy, dooming the Marines in Basilan.
Ms Arroyo Monday ordered the Department of Energy and the Department of Education (DepEd) to conduct a “humanitarian offensive” in Basilan and Sulu to assist civilians affected by the ongoing military offensive.
According to Ms Arroyo, the “humanitarian offensive” includes the putting up of solar-powered science laboratories “in the hinterlands of Basilan and Sulu” to enable students to continue their studies despite the fighting.
“We’d like to do a humanitarian offensive in Basilan and Sulu and the assignment of the Department of Energy, together with the DepEd, would be to put up solar-powered science laboratories for students in the hinterlands of Sulu and Basilan,” she said.
On Esperon’s orders, the 13 slain soldiers brought to Manila Monday night were given posthumous one-rank promotions. Each of their aluminum caskets was draped in the Philippine flag. A flag also covered the casket of an Air Force pilot killed during the incident. He was also promoted.
Top military and defense officials honored each soldier with a salute as their remains were unloaded from the plane.
Relatives sobbed as a priest blessed each casket. Other grieving relatives, kept in the terminal, peeked through glass windows.
Alex Vergara, father of the slain Marine Danilo, did not want to believe his son was dead until he saw the casket for himself.
“When I saw him, I had no choice but to accept it, even if it’s very painful,” he said. With reports from Michael Lim Ubac and Tarra Quismundo