Army troops dispatched in an “all-out justice” drive for 19 soldiers slaughtered last week on Wednesday seized an encampment of at least 100 outlaws led by former Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) commander Waning Abdusalam in Payao, Zamboanga Sibugay province.
“As of this time, the main camp of the enemy has been occupied by our troops,” Army chief Lieutenant General Arturo Ortiz said in a text message to reporters shortly before 5 p.m.
The three-day air and ground assault has prompted the evacuation of some 20,000 residents in Zamboanga Sibugay and Basilan province, the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) said.
A Scout Ranger company moved under cover of darkness on Tuesday night in rough terrain rigged with landmines against Abdusalam after two days of bombing by the Philippine Air Force (PAF).
Troops of the Light Reaction Company (LRC) boosted the lead assault force by daylight Wednesday, according to Ortiz.
“Four companies are following the leading Scout Ranger company. They are now clearing the area,” he said, referring to landmines the outlaws planted on the path lanes.
Spillover of hostilities
At the same time, Brigadier General Jose Mabanta Jr., Armed Forces of the Philippines deputy chief of staff for operations, told reporters in Camp Aguinaldo that the military was prepared for any “spillover” of hostilities.
Following a directive from President Benigno Aquino III, PAF OV-10 attack planes on Monday began pounding Abdusalam’s stronghold. The chief of the MILF 113th Base Command notorious for kidnapping and robbery was recently renounced by the rebel leadership.
“We intend to finish this as soon as possible. We are now assaulting and hopefully by the end of the day or at least tomorrow morning we should declare victory,” Mabanta said.
“The instruction that the chief of staff has given commanders on the ground is do it as swift as possible,” he said. “Anyone can take advantage of this situation,” he said specifically referring to the communist New People’s Army.
Mabanta likened the encampment of Abdusalam’s forces in Labatan village in coastal Payao to an island surrounded by mangroves that is accessible from the mainland through a small land bridge. He said the encampment had fortified, cemented bunkers.
“This has become a lair of extortionists and petty criminals. They take refuge here,” Mabanta said. “Based on the resistance we encountered, they are well armed and well stocked with ammunition and foodstuff.”
Since October 24, two soldiers have been killed while two others were wounded in the assault on Payao, according to Mabanta. He said six outlaws were confirmed killed while some 40 were believed wounded.
The assault on the renegade MILF encampment came a week after 19 Special Forces soldiers were slaughtered in Basilan on October 18. The massacre was followed by other ambushes that had claimed more than 30 lives, mostly soldiers.
At least 11,593 residents have been displaced by military operations in Payao as well as in neighboring Alicia, Mabuhay, Talusan and Olutanga towns, said Teodulo Romo, a DWSD regional director.
“They’re moving to safer places,” said Romo, who was set to meet with the mayors to map out the evacuation plan and livelihood program for the evacuees. “We will assume that this is not short-lived.”
In Al-Barka, scene of the October 18 massacre in Basilan, some 7,888 residents were displaced, he said.
Precondition for talks
In Manila, Representative Amado Bagatsing on Wednesday called on President Aquino to make the surrender of MILF rebels responsible for the killing of the 19 soldiers a condition for the continuation of peace talks.
“This is not war-mongering or a hawkish stance but a straightforward assessment that if the MILF cannot rein in its members from wreaking havoc in areas it supposedly controls in Mindanao, then there’s no point in the government talking with this belligerent group,” Bagatsing said.
Christians and Muslims are running together on Thursday in Quezon City to press demands for a negotiated settlement of the Moro conflict. The run, spearheaded by activist priest Fr. Robert Reyes, will kick off from Quezon Memorial Circle at around 7 a.m. and end at the Boy Scout Jamboree Monument on Tomas Morato Avenue, where prayers for peace and fasting will be held.
Peace chooses no religion
“P-Noy’s (Aquino) stand against all-out war needs to be supported. Churches have already expressed their support. Individuals and groups need to step forward for peace. It takes faith and courage to speak for peace today,” Reyes said.
Joining Reyes are members of the Bangsamoro Solidarity Movement led by its secretary general Jolly Lais. “This is a timely effort for the peace talks. Peace chooses no religion. All peace activities have to be supported,” Lais said. With reports from Julie Alipala, Allan Nawal, Orlando Dinoy, Ryan Rosauro and Jeoffrey Maitem, Inquirer Mindanao Bureau; and Philip C. Tubeza and Cynthia D. Balana in Manila