Moro rebels stand aside in Sulu to allow gov’t offensive
MANILA, Philippines — The path is now clear for government troops waiting to strike the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu after Moro National Liberation Front forces on the island province confined themselves to two predefined areas away from the military offensive.
Army chief Lieutenant General Romeo Tolentino, who has been tasked to lead the Sulu offensive, said having the MNLF confined to the two areas, which he refused to identify so as not to jeopardize operations, “simplified the equation.”
“When our troops go out and they encounter anyone carrying firearms [outside the MNLF areas], those are considered enemies,” said Tolentino, who President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has tasked with “normalizing” the Sulu security situation.
“We are always striking anytime we want,” he added.
Asked what progress he made in Sulu ahead of his Friday retirement, Tolentino said: “The operation is now simplified. You can see the enemy.”
He also said a gun ban in Sulu was holding.
Arroyo sent Tolentino to Sulu after 27 Army soldiers and an estimated 41 Abu Sayyaf fighters were killed in four engagements in Indanan, Parang, and Maimbung towns from August 7 to 9.
Tolentino said eyewitness accounts from soldiers in the July 9 Maimbung firefight confirmed that Abu Sayyaf commander Gumbahali Jumdail alias Abu Pula and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) operative Dulmatin, a suspect in the 2002 Bali bombings, were wounded.
“The question is how grave are the wounds? My men saw them,” he said.
The Sulu casualties came almost a month after 14 Marines were killed, 10 of them also beheaded, in an encounter with the Abu Sayyaf and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels in Ginanta village, Al-Barkah town, Basilan province.
Last Saturday, 15 Marines and a helicopter pilot and an estimated 42 Abu Sayyaf were killed following a gun battle with the Abu Sayyaf and the MILF in Ungkaya Pukan town.
Over a month of fighting has so far left 57 soldiers and an estimated 83 bandits killed.