18 soldiers killed in Sayyaf ambush
ZAMBOANGA CITY—Government forces battled Abu Sayyaf bandits in Basilan on Sunday as military officials vowed to “destroy” the extremist group with more offensives after fierce fighting on Saturday left 18 soldiers dead and 56 others wounded.
Gen. Hernando Iriberri, chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, ordered nonstop
operations against the Abu Sayyaf after Saturday’s clash, which came after an April 8 ransom deadline set by the bandits, who had threatened to behead three Westerners and a Filipino woman they had been holding hostage since September last year.
“Even as we speak, there is an encounter going on in the same place,” said Iriberri, who flew to the military’s Western Mindanao Command base in Zamboanga City on Sunday with Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin to visit the wounded and assess the situation.
“We are mourning. The whole armed forces is mourning,” Iriberri told reporters, referring to the deaths of the 18 soldiers, one of the military’s biggest battlefield losses in a single day in recent years.
He said Saturday morning’s clash with the Abu Sayyaf in Baguindan village, Tipo-Tipo town, lasted for 10 hours.
At least four soldiers were reportedly beheaded in the fighting, which involved about a hundred Abu Sayyaf bandits led by Isnilon Hapilon, for whom the US state department has offered a bounty of $5 million, and Furuji Indama.
But Maj. Filemon Tan, spokesperson for the Western Mindanao Command, denied reports that the soldiers were beheaded, explaining that the soldiers’ heads were blown off by the bandits’ heavy firepower.
Tan described the fighting as close-quarter combat, with the government troops and the bandits just 10 meters from each other.
There was no immediate statement from the Abu Sayyaf, a small but violent group known for extortion, kidnappings for ransom, beheadings and bombings in the south.
The spokesperson for the military unit involved in the clash said the soldiers were on their way to attack an Abu Sayyaf hideout when they were hit.
“Our group was heading to attack them. On the way, they were ambushed,” Col. Benedict Manquiquis told radio station dzRH.
“The enemy had the high ground so no matter where our soldiers fled to seek cover, they could still be hit by the heavy firepower and improvised explosive devices of the members of the Abu Sayyaf group,” he said.
But Iriberri said the troops, from Charlie Company of the 44th Infantry Battalion, were in an encounter and were not ambushed.
“It was really an encounter,” he said, but added that details remained unavailable because the fighting was going on.
“We cannot get a clear picture of what happened, but rest assured that once everything is settled, we will give a statement,” he said.
Iriberri praised the soldiers for their gallantry in battle.
“Despite heavy enemy resistance and advantage, with their familiarity with the terrain in Basilan, our troops fought gallantly. We salute our troops, as they displayed the finest traditions of soldiery and bravely fought the bandits with utmost valor,” he said.
But the accounts of two survivors suggested the government forces were ambushed by the bandits.
Sgt. Erico Paglinawan, one of the wounded, told the Inquirer from his hospital bed that about 30 soldiers from the Charlie Company of the 44th Infantry Battalion, supported by troops from the 4th Special Forces, were going through Baguindan on foot at about 7 a.m. Saturday when somebody in the frontline stepped on a landmine, setting it off.
Five soldiers were killed outright in the explosion, Paglinawan said.
Then fighting broke out and Paglinawan said he was hit in the chest. “Blood was oozing from my wound. It was like water coming from a faucet,” he said.
He said that while waiting to be evacuated, which did not happen until three hours later, he drank his own blood, thinking this would prevent him from dying due to loss of blood.
Capt. Kilbas Mauricio, who was hit in the left leg, said the fighting started with an explosion then “followed by a ball of fire,” indicating an ambush.
The fighting went on for hours and among the troops who were wounded were the commander of the 44th Infantry Battalion, Col. Tommy Crosby, and three other officers.
Major Tan said five bandits, including a Moroccan, Mohammad Khattab, and Ubaida, son of Hapilon, were killed in the fighting.
He said 20 other bandits were wounded in the fighting.
Iriberri said Khattab was an instructor in making improvised explosive devices and an “Islamic jihadist preacher.”
“He wanted to unify, organize all kidnap-for-ransom groups to be affiliated with an international terrorist organization,” he said.
Iriberri would not identify the international group Khattab was working for, but he could be referring to IS, to which the Abu Sayyaf pledged allegiance last year.
IS has captured vast areas of Iraq and Syria since its rise more than a year ago. It is believed to be recruiting fighters in Asia.
Besides the Abu Sayyaf, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a splinter of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest Muslim rebel group in Mindanao, has also pledged allegiance to IS, although the military believes the militant groups are only riding on the increasing popularity of IS in the jihadist community.
Lt. Gen. Eduardo Año, Philippine Army chief, said Khattab had been in the Philippines for three years and had been under military surveillance for a year until his death on Saturday.
“He was serving as the Abu Sayyaf’s conduit, trying to link them up to a Middle East international terrorist group,” Año said without identifying the international group.
Año said the military aimed to “finally destroy the Abu Sayyaf, especially now that we have found the exact location of the group.”
Iriberri said the operation against the Abu Sayyaf, which had been going on since December last year, was aimed at preventing further kidnappings for ransom.
The bandits are still holding Canadians John Ridsdel and Robert Hall, Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad and Filipino Maritess Flor, whom they seized from a resort on Samal Island, Davao del Sur province, in September last year.
Last month, they threatened to kill the hostages unless ransom of P1 billion for each was paid within 30 days. With reports from Julie M. Aurelio and Inquirer Research in Manila, and the wires
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