Friday, October 28, 2011

Military declares victory in Sibugay

MANILA, Philippines - The military leadership in the Zamboanga peninsula yesterday declared victory over a group headed by Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) commander Wahid Abdusalam in Zamboanga Sibugay.

Military officials led by Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) chief Lt. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer yesterday set foot in the highly fortified stronghold of Abdusalam and his men at Sitio Talaib, Barangay Labatan in Payao town following days of heavy fighting and bombing sorties that left 13 dead and forced thousands of civilians to flee.

“The safe haven of kidnapping operations and terrorist activities in Zamboanga Sibugay has fallen,” Ferrer declared.

Ferrer directed the operations to capture the encampment of Abdusalam on Thursday morning, marking the troops’ apparent victory in its two weeks offensive operations.

The government has described Abdusalam as a renegade MILF commander and his forces as “lawless elements.”

“We have re-established our authority in this part of Payao and we owe it to the joint forces – our Army, Air Force, Navy and the police – that fought long and hard,” he added.

Abdusalam and several of his men reportedly slipped through the cordon of the government forces with the troops seizing two .50 caliber machine guns at the encampment.

Most of the estimated 100 gunmen holed up in the camp had fled, although two surrendered earlier, Army chief Lt. Gen. Arturo Ortiz said.

“Yes, the camp of Commander Waning has been overrun,” Ortiz said, referring to the alias of Abdusalam.

“There are reports that he fled with 40 of his men and that he had been wounded and unable to walk due to his injuries,” Ortiz said.

Army’s 1st Division chief Maj. Gen. Noel Coballes said they are monitoring the same reports that Abdusalam was wounded and fled with some of his followers.

“The penetrating forces have monitored some of the rebels fleeing from the area under the cover of the swampy mangrove and there were reports that one of those wounded was Waning Abdusalam,” Coballes said.

“Our forces on the ground conducting the clearing operations are verifying this information,” he added.

Ferrer, on the other hand, said there was no report that Abdusalam and his men have escaped.

Intelligence sources said some of Abdusalam’s men have sought shelter in Zamboanga City while the rest have joined him in his boat going to Sabah, Malaysia.

“Most of the high value targets are no longer in the area,” the source said.

The source added they are also validating reports that the MILF elements that killed the 19 soldiers in Al Barka, Basilan last week have also relocated to other areas outside of Basilan.

Despite the victory, continuous clearing operations are still going on in the area to locate Abdusalam and about 100 of his followers.

Military ground commanders could only say that Abdusalam, since he was wounded, could be among the 27 gunmen killed in the massive air strikes and ground assaults.

If not, he and his men could have already dispersed into smaller groups and are now hiding in a wide mangrove area along the long coastline of Barangay Labatan.

Satisfied

Malacañang, on the other hand, expressed its satisfaction over the ongoing military operations in the region.

“I think we’re all satisfied right now with the pace of the action against the lawless elements,” Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office Secretary Ricky Carandang said in a press briefing.

Carandang said Social Welfare and Development Secretary Corazon Soliman, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Deles and Interior and Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo would personally check what was happening in Basilan and Zamboanga Sibugay.

Carandang said the three Cabinet officials would be joined by local officials and the police for an assessment of the situation.

“We just want to know what’s happening. We want to get the latest information on the ground about how the operations are doing. It’s one thing to hear about it when we’re here; it’s another when you’re actually seeing the results. So they want to get a firsthand look at how the operations are going,” Carandang said.

He said the military has already informed them that it would already be safe to go to these two areas.

“They are going to go to some areas…where it’s calm already. There are still operations going on in some areas so they can’t go everywhere. But the three secretaries will go to areas where their safety will be ensured,” Carandang said.

Carandang said they were not seeing any spill over of the violence from the military’s theater of operations in the region.

He also said the number of people affected by the ongoing military operations was not as big as earlier reported.

Carandang said it would be up to the military to decide on the time frame to carry out the “all-out justice” order of the President.

“Operationally, it’s going to be left in the hands of the PNP (Philippine National Police) and the military. So as to how long, how many troops—it would be up to them. We won’t get into operational details,” Carandang said.

“We want it to be as soon as possible; we want it to be as clean as possible. If we can do this without harming any civilians, innocent bystanders, if we can do this in a way that doesn’t displace too many people which we are doing right now, then I think that’s the goal and so far, so good,” he said.

‘Impenetrable area’

Several hundred troops were combing through the 3.5-square kilometer rebel encampment located in a marshy area in Zamboanga Sibugay that had been fortified with reinforced concrete bunkers.

Coballes said the soldiers were continuously conducting the clearing operations as the haven, accessible only by patches of land bridges and dikes, was rigged with land mines designed as booby traps.

He said ground forces have entered the area since Wednesday evening. Ground forces said the rebel camp was “developed as an impenetrable area” by the gunmen.

The regional police led by Chief Superintendent Elpedio de Asis is helping the military in clearing the encampment of unexploded land mines and searching the mangrove area nearby where the rebels could have dumped their weapons when they escaped.

De Asis added the police is helping in the manhunt of Abdusalam and his men that he said “may have slipped the cordon during the night.”

The government has accused Abdusalam and his men of killing four soldiers and four policemen in ambushes in Zamboanga Sibugay last week, as well as for previous kidnappings.

Abdusalam and his group were initially identified as members of the MILF, but the MILF disowned them last Tuesday.

“Considering that we have overrun and captured their stronghold, it’s victory on our part,” Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesman Col. Arnulfo Burgos declared in a press briefing yesterday.

What used to be the defense strong point of the lawless group, Sitio Talaib, is now an empty fishing village, except for the presence of the soldiers, he said.

On the north side of the village, Burgos said there was a small mosque and blood is everywhere.

“I guess this is where they brought their wounded and dying comrades. Gun emplacements were found at the northern part of Sitio Talaib,” Ferrer said in his report to the Army headquarters in Manila.

“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 added.

Ortiz also claimed the seized camp was strategically located in Zamboanga Sibugay province, which also served as the camp of the MILF’s Special Operations Group.

Military operations chief Brigadier-General Jose Mabanta said two soldiers and six gunmen were killed during the earlier stages of the operation against the camp, adding they were verifying reports 16 other gunmen had died.

The troops also discovered yesterday more than 15 freshly dug graves at Talaib Point where a local cemetery is located.

“I gave instructions to our soldiers not to disturb the graves anymore,” Ferrer added. – With Aurea Calica

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By Jaime Laude and Roel Pareño (The Philippine Star) Updated October 28, 2011 12:00 AM

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