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Rebel leader’s fallen camp ‘heavily fortified’

ZAMBOANGA CITY -- Government forces are conducting clearing operations to find unexploded landmines and firearms after they captured the “heavily fortified” camp of bandit leader Wanning Abdulsalam, a top military official said Thursday.

The military, with the help of police elements, launched aerial and ground attacks against the group of Abdulsalam last Monday. Two bomber planes of the Philippine Air Force also conducted air strikes on the rebels’ stronghold.

The camp located in Sitio Talaib, Labatan village, Payao, Zamboanga Sibugay province fell Wednesday night into the hands of the government forces after a week-long fighting.

Western Mindanao Command (Wesmincom) chief Lieutenant General Raymundo Ferrer, who visited Thursday Abdulsalam's fallen camp, said the area is “so defensible and lined with mines that you have to admire the ground troops for their steadfast determination to reign the territory from the lawless group.”

He said they could not move freely since their Explosive Ordnance Demolition personnel have to mark first the safe areas where they can pass through.

Ferrer said “gun emplacements” were found at the northern side of Sitio Talaib, with two caliber 50 machine guns nests fortified with logs and sand.

He said the troops are exerting efforts to locate the wounded criminals who may have slipped the cordon during the night since the camp was empty when the soldiers occupied the area.

The troops also found 15 freshly dug graves in the cemetery where the slain followers were hastily buried at the height of the firefight.

“I gave instructions to our soldiers not to disturb the graves anymore,” Ferrer said.

He also said the southern side of Sitio Talaib “is actually the strong point” of the criminals, citing “there is also a small mosque and blood is everywhere.”

Ferrer believed the southern side is where Abdulsalam and his men “brought their wounded and dying comrades.”

“The safe haven of kidnapping operations and terrorist activities in Zamboanga Sibugay has fallen. 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 -- who fought long and hard,” Ferrer said.

Meanwhile, three Cabinet officials will be going to Zamboanga Sibugay and Basilan on Friday to inspect the ongoing military operations.

Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman, Presidential Adviser on Peace Process Teresita Ging Deles and Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo will go to Mindanao to hold a peace and order conference.

“We just want to know what’s happening, we want to get the latest information on the ground to understand what’s happening. It’s one thing to hear about it when you’re here, it’s another when you’re there and actually see the results. They would like to get a first-hand look at how the operations are going,” Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Secretary Ramon Carandang said.

He said the trip of the three was upon the instruction of President Benigno Aquino III.

The military has launched operations against the lawless elements of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) after successive attacks against soldiers in various areas in Mindanao last week.

Security forces are securing three areas where skirmishes occurred including Payao, Zamboanga Sibugay; Sultan Dimaporo, Lanao del Norte; and Al Barka, Basilan.

Carandang said the three officials will only go to the area where their safety will be assured.

Aside from the law enforcement operations, the officials are also tasked to assess the welfare of the local residents displaced by the military operations.

Carandang assured that the Department of Social Welfare and Development is attending to the needs of the evacuees. (Bong Garcia/Jill Beltran/Sunnex)



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