Lair of outlaws captured but where are the bad guys?
ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines—Where is Waning Abdusalam?
This question popped out immediately after the military announced that Abdusalam’s camp in Payao, Zamboanga Sibugay, had fallen into military hands late Wednesday afternoon.
Major General Noel Coballes, commander of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, admitted Thursday that they did not know where the alleged kidnap leader had fled amid a combination of military air strikes, howitzer fire and ground assaults that started about two weeks ago.
“There was nobody inside the camp but there were indications they were there before it was captured,” he said.
Coballes said he has received reports that Abdusalam, who has been linked to the June 2010 kidnapping of Italian missionary priest Giancarlo Bossi and several other victims, was among the wounded and that, supposedly, “he could hardly walk and [was] seeking help from relatives living nearby.”
He said the military was inclined to believe that a number of the Abdusalam’s men were injured or have been killed, as indicated by bloodstains inside the camp, which could accommodate 200 people. But where are their bodies?
“Our troops are still conducting clearing operations,” he said.
Coballes said the police had intercepted some men at a stream near the camp but it was not established that they were part of Abdusalam’s group.
“They were still being interrogated,” he said.
Coballes said among the things recovered the landmine-rigged camp, which is about a kilometer wide and 300 meters long, were bombs and a tripod for a machine gun.
“The bombs were being disabled,” he said.
Despite not having Abdusalam in military custody, Coballes said, the capture of the camp alone was a victory for the military.
“Because we were able to flush them out and we are now coordinating with other units to closely monitor the movement of other members probably seeking help for their injured companions,” he said.
Coballes said the military was continuing its hunt for Abdusalam and his men.
Giovanni Rivera, Zamboanga Sibugay Governor Rommel Jalosjos’ chief of staff, said the number of people displaced by the joint military and police operation that started October 15 was still being ascertained.
Provincial officials had earlier estimated the figure at 2,000 families.
US Ambassador Harry Thomas said in a statement on Thursday that Washington was confident the situation in Zamboanga Sibugay will not degenerate into a situation similar to the 2008 violence in Mindanao, when thousands of people were displaced because of the campaign against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
“The United States welcomes and expresses its full confidence in the careful, measured approach of the Government of the Philippines at this time of heightened tension,” he said in a statement.
Thomas said he was also hoping that the military and the MILF “can avoid violence and continue to work toward an agreement that will provide for a peaceful and prosperous future.”
“We welcome steps by all parties to reinforce the cease-fire that has been in place since 2009. We fully support the ongoing peace process,” he said.
The militant Suara Bangsamoro said the Zamboanga Sibugay campaign has become an “all out injustice” because “it blatantly failed the very people it serves to protect – the civilians.”
“The entire communities are being bombed and tens of thousands of villagers are fleeing their homes as the AFP pursues these so-called lawless elements,” Neil Murad, Suara Bangsamoro secretary general, said in a statement.
The military has denied the air strikes were indiscriminate and maintained that no civilian was harmed.
Armed Forces Chief General Eduardo Oban said the operation was calculated and was aimed at capturing Abdusalam under President Benigno Aquino’s directive for “all-out justice.”
“You can brand a war any manner you like but its consequences remain the same. Another all-out war can only breed further injustice, human rights violations, loss of lives, destruction of livelihood, and will push any prospect for peace in Mindanao further back,” Murad said.
With reports from Allan Nawal and Orlando Dinoy, Inquirer Mindanao
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