ZAMBOANGA CITY—It was the work of barbarians.
That was how a Navy officer described the beheading of five out of seven Marines killed in fierce fighting with the Abu Sayyaf bandits in a Sulu jungle Thursday.
President Benigno Aquino III condemned the beheadings.
“Mark my words: To those of you who perpetrated this atrocity, know that you are now No. 1 on my radar. It might take some time, but make no mistake about it: you will be brought to justice to answer for your crimes,” Mr. Aquino said in a statement in Manila.
Twenty-five other Marines were wounded in the clash while intelligence reports said about 20 of the bandits were slain in the battle that lasted four hours.
“One of the severed heads has yet to be recovered,” a Marine officer overseeing the embalming of the bodies at St. Peter’s Chapel here told the Inquirer Friday.
The officer, who asked not to be identified for lack of authority to speak to the media, said the sight of the slain soldiers reminded him of a similar outrage in Basilan province in 2007, where 10 Marines were also beheaded by the Abu Sayyaf.
To dehumanize troops
Those decapitated in Thursday’s clash included a 2nd lieutenant, a sergeant, and three privates first class.
The head of one of the privates first class remains missing, the officer said.
“This is a barbaric act,” said Commodore Armando Guzman, Naval Forces Western Mindanao commander. “This is the saddest part. Explaining to their families how it happened. It’s not easy on our part.”
Colonel Daniel Lucero, commander of the Army’s 103rd Infantry Brigade based in Lanao who spent time in Basilan before, said it was not unusual for the Abu Sayyaf to mutilate fallen soldiers.
“They behead soldiers to dehumanize our troops,” Lucero said, citing at least two incidents during his Basilan stint.
Dr. Nilo Barandino, a physician based in Basilan who has conducted post-mortem examinations on many slain soldiers, said that based on his recollection, there were at least 70 soldiers mutilated or beheaded in the province since 1980.
While the latest beheading and mutilation had added to the pains of the military, Guzman said they found solace in that “the Philippine Navy and the Marines have achieved strategic victory in its fight against the Abu Sayyaf Group in Sulu.”
“Yes we got one big loss but still we see this as a strategic victory. We were able to drive them away. Now, they are scattered,” he said.
Soldiers under the Marine Battalion Landing Team 11 were operating in Panglahayan village in Patikul town when they stumbled on an Abu Sayyaf enclave manned by about 70 gunmen under commanders Isnilon Hapilon and Radulan Sahiron.
Marine Corps Commandant Lieutenant General Rustico Guerrero said there was victory in the debacle.
“We were able to overrun one of the major strongholds of the Abu Sayyaf Group,” he said in a speech before Marine soldiers here.
Colonel Eugenio Mislang, chief of the Camp Navarro Hospital where some of the wounded soldiers were brought, said “intelligence reports indicated that the Marines killed 20 Abu Sayyaf.”
“(We got) 13 names but no body count because the bandits carried their dead and wounded away,” he said.
Guzman said the manhunt against the bandits was continuing.
The Marine officer interviewed by the Inquirer said the embalmers assigned to fix the cadavers had a hard time doing their job because of the extent of the mutilation.
“Some of them were hacked beyond recognition,” he said.
At a disadvantage
From the outset, the Marines were in a “disadvantaged position” when they came upon the heavily defended Abu Sayyaf lair, officials said.
The enemy camp, located on high ground, was guarded by dozens of heavily armed men and littered with foxholes, or dugouts with enemies lurking underneath, according to First Leiutenant Cherryl Tindog, acting spokesperson of the Marine corps.
“It’s their camp. It’s automatic that the disadvantaged position was with the (Marines),” she said in an interview Friday.
Initial reports indicated further that the Marine platoon of about 30 Marines engaged “more or less 70” Abu bandits.
Tindog denied conjectures that the soldiers, who were members of a special operations platoon of the Marine Battalion Landing Team 11, were virtual “sitting ducks.”
“It wasn’t like that but, of course, when they entered the camp, the enemy could see you,” she told reporters.
She said the Marines had no other route to the camp but up. “They would be seen naturally since it was almost 5 a.m.,” she said.
Platoon leader killed
Unconfirmed reports reaching Manila said six of the slain Marines—not five—were beheaded and mutilated.
The military believes the Abu casualties were “a lot more” since pursuit operations were still going on, Philippine Navy spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Omar Tonsay said.
Among the seven Marines killed was the platoon leader. Their names were withheld upon the wishes of the family.
“I feel that one of the reasons we incurred such heavy losses is because the platoon leader was killed,” Tindog said.
“If you think about it, it was very difficult to penetrate but we did. That has always been the attitude of the Marine Corps: When all else fails, send in the Marines,” she said.
Tears for friends
Tindog knew the seven personally. At times she turned teary during the interview.
Defense Secretary Voltaire T. Gazmin extended his condolences to the families of the seven Marines.
“We salute the heroism of the MBLT 11 of the Philippine Marines,” he said in a statement.
The seven Marines, upon the recommendation of their superiors, are set to receive Gold Cross medals, the third highest recognition for a soldier, according to Tindog. They will also be posthumously promoted to the next highest rank.
Their bodies will be flown to the Marine headquarters at Fort Bonifacio, Taguig City, on Sunday, where they will be accorded full military honors, she said.
The 25 injured will receive Wounded Personnel medals, as well as other awards that may befit them, Tindog said.
In a statement, Vice Admiral Alexander Pama said: “It is indeed unfortunate that such an incident transpired. However, as what had turned out, their sacrifices were not fruitless as the Marines in Sulu have proven that they are coming closer to attaining their goals against terrorism.” With a report from Norman Bordadora