Top bandit eludes troops
The enemies were gone by the time troops entered the Moro stronghold in Zamboanga Sibugay province.
Soldiers found trails of blood that led to a small mosque in an empty fishing village at Talaib Point in Payao town. Nearby, they saw 15 freshly dug graves but the troops did not disturb these.
“Blood was everywhere. I guess this was where they brought their wounded and dying comrades,” Lieutenant General Raymundo Ferrer, the Western Mindanao (Westmin) commander, said in a report to General Eduardo Oban, chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
As the troops swept the enemy camp and cleared it of land mines and abandoned weapons, military officials declared victory in the operation which President Benigno Aquino III ordered on Monday against “lawless elements” after the October 18 massacre of 19 soldiers in Al-Barka, Basilan province.
“Yes (this is a victory) for us. It’s major because this is a big loss to them. Even if we are to say they are not completely decimated, they have broken up,” said Colonel Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos Jr., head of the AFP’s public affairs office.
The lawless elements, numbering 100, had scattered. Some 27 on the enemy side had been killed following ground skirmishes and air strikes over the past three days, Burgos said.
More than 30,000 people were reportedly evacuated as a result of the government offensive in Zamboanga Sibugay and the rebel ambushes in Basilan, according to the Department of Social Welfare and Development.
But the target of the offensive in Zamboanga Sibugay, renegade leader Waning Abdulsalam, who was wanted for a series of kidnappings and extortion, was still missing. “He’s probably dead,” Burgos said but quickly added there was no way to confirm this as yet.
“On whether Waning Abdulsalam is wounded, it’s probably true because in the first place, it’s likely he’s not just wounded, but dead. And because of the bloodstains everywhere, it’s an indication of the intense fighting yesterday,” he said in a briefing at Camp Crame.
Major General Noel Coballes, commander of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, said Abdulsalam, allegedly behind the June 2010 kidnapping of Italian missionary Fr. Giancarlo Bossi and several others, probably fled the combined air strikes, howitzer fire and ground assault that began on Monday.
“There was nobody inside the camp but there were indications they were there before it was captured,” Coballes said.
The operation was the largest mounted since rogue elements of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) went on a rampage in 2008 following the breakdown of talks on Moro ancestral domain in Mindanao.
President Aquino, in a nationally televised address on Monday, described the offensive as “all-out justice” for the 19 Special Forces soldiers slaughtered on October 18 in Al-Barka on Basilan.
But critics of the operation asked why the assault was conducted in Payao, a coastal town in the Moro Gulf located around 150 kilometers northeast of Al-Barka, and against a criminal whose links to the October 18 massacre had not been established.
Burgos was asked about this in a briefing on Tuesday. He replied: “Before we conduct an operation, we should be thorough, (it should be) carefully planned. (It should be a) deliberate, intelligence-driven and focused operation. We have to be precise regarding our target.”
Oban was more forthcoming, saying troops were conducting intelligence operations to locate the perpetrators in the dense jungles of Basilan before ostensibly mounting a major assault similar to the campaign in Zamboanga Sibugay.
“Our operation in Basilan against lawless elements is ongoing. We are hunting down personalities. We have crafted an objective, deliberate and calibrated response. We just have to couple this with good intelligence work,” he said.
Quoting Ferrer’s report, Burgos said the military now occupied the fortified structures at Barangay Labatan in Payao after the renegades were forced to abandon camp in the face of an intense ground assault.
“The area is so defensible and lined with mines that you have to admire the ground troops for their steadfast determination to regain the territory from the lawless group,” Ferrer said.
Burgos said the site, described as a former camp of a dissolved MILF faction, had very thick vegetation and was twice the size of Camp Aguinaldo (1 by 3.7 kilometers).
In his report, Ferrer said government forces were focusing their efforts in finding and disarming unexploded mines that littered the area, as well as locating firearms that the enemies had dumped in haste in the mangrove swamp.
The rebels had used two .50 cal. machine guns, and one of them was recovered at the scene yesterday, Burgos said.
“Efforts are also exerted to locate the wounded criminals who may have slipped the cordon during the night,” Ferrer said.
He said the rebels had apparently retreated to a mosque whose grounds were streaked with blood. They had also apparently buried their dead in shallow graves near the area.
“I gave instructions to our soldiers not to disturb the graves anymore,” Ferrer said.
Enemy stronghold occupied
Colonel Vic Tomas, deputy chief of the AFP’s Civil Relations Service, said ground troops were being very careful in scouring the area to avoid casualties on the government side.
“There are areas we declared as cleared and these are fortified positions occupied by government forces. Our law enforcement operations continue especially in the dense areas,” he said.
“Though our men have the right training, we have to avoid casualties. We have well-planned, focused and deliberate actions. The PNP and our land, air and sea forces are there,” Tomas said.
With the occupation of the enemy stronghold in Payao, “the safe haven of kidnapping operations and terrorist activities in Zamboanga Sibugay has fallen,” Ferrer said.
“The most important thing here is we liberated the place. We have established a hold in that former stronghold of lawless elements,” Burgos added. With reports from Dona Z. Pazzibugan in Manila, and Allan Nawal and Orlando Dinoy, Inquirer Mindanao