Manila, Philippines --- Government troops backed by assault helicopters are hunting down fleeing Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) bandits as the death toll from Saturday’s clash between a Marine team and an ASG unit in the hinterlands of Patikul, Sulu, has climbed to 14.
Government forces suffered seven soldiers killed in action (KIA) and nine wounded in action (WIA) during the firefight, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesman Brig. Gen. Domingo Tutaan, Jr. said yesterday.
He said they received information yesterday that seven ASG members were also killed.
Full military honors were accorded to the seven slain Marines as their remains arrived at the Villamor Airbase in Pasay City yesterday afternoon.
Philippine Marine Corps Commandant, Brig. Gen. Romeo T. Tanalgo led the giving of full honors to the fallen Marines, identified as 2Lt. Alfredo E. Lorin, a member of Philippine Military Academy (PMA) Class 2011; Corporal Jay B. Alasain, Private First Class Andres R. Bogwana, PFC Rene A. Gare, PFC Jayson C. Durante, PFC Dominador A. Sabejon, and PFC Roxas L. Pizarro.
The seven were members of the Force Recon Class-18 who figured in a firefight with ASG bandits while tracking down the group involved in the latest kidnapping incidents in Sulu.
Full military honors were accorded to them in recognition of their heroism, gallantry and for sacrificing their lives in service of the country.
While he grieves for the death of his men, Tanalgo said: “As Marines, we are, everyone, every Marine is prepared to pay the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of ending the terrorism to pave the way for peace and development. Talagang ganun, they know the risk.”
Meanwhile, Marine spokesman 1Lt. Vladimir Cabrera said the families of the fallen heroes will receive financial assistance from the Philippine Navy and their children will be entitled to scholarship grants.
The bodies were flown from Edwin Andrews Airbase in Zamboanga City via a C-130 transport plane of the Philippine Air Force (PAF) which arrived at Villamor Airbase around 4:35 p.m.
Earlier reports said five ASG men were slain during a frontal battle with the Marines. The slain ASG bandits were identified as commander Apong Idol, Kausar Sawadjaan (son of ASG sub-commander Jul Asman Sawadjaan), Julmiden Wali (son-in-law of sub-commander Juhurim Hussin), Hairula Asbang, and Ibno Abdulkahal. Fifteen other ASG bandits were also wounded based on the latest military report.
Tutaan said efforts to pursue the ASG fighters are continuing. However, he said the military is making sure that the pursuit operation will not harm residents in the area.
Reports reaching the AFP headquarters at Camp. Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo showed that the encounter broke out around 6:45 a.m. in Barangay Tugas in Patikul town.
Tutaan said sporadic firefight that lasted about an hour ensued after a Marine Force Reconnaissance team conducting tracking and pursuit operations ran into an ASG unit in Barangay Tugas.
He said the operations were in relation to the recent kidnapping incidents in the area. One of the latest kidnap victims was the wife of a Marine officer.
“Na-track sila (ASG) sila kaya nagconduct ng operations against them... nagkabanggaan, so yun ang resulta. Lt. Gen. Rey Ardo is on top of the operational situation,” said Tutaan.
The fleeing bandits are believed to be led by Jul-Aswan Sawadjaan, an Abu Sayyaf commander accused in the kidnappings of a Jordanian journalist and two European bird watchers who are still being held by the bandits.
One of Sawadjaan’s sons and a minor Abu Sayyaf commander were believed to have been killed in the firefight, said Marine Col. Jose Cenabre, who heads security forces in Sulu. He said the Marines initially had difficulty returning fire because the dozens of bandits took cover near a row of houses.
The firefight was part of a new military offensive that started last week and is aimed at rescuing the three foreign captives, who were abducted last year, along with three Filipinos kidnapped separately by the bandits in recent weeks, he said.
Although a large number of Marines and policemen are involved in the offensive, only small units have been deployed to hunt down the Abu Sayyaf in two jungle encampments in Sulu, Cenabre said without providing details of the operation. US forces were providing intelligence but were not involved in actual combat, he said.
Malacañang has extended condolences to the families of the soldiers killed in action in Sulu and promised to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Saddened by the death of the brave men in uniform, Deputy Presidential Spokeswoman Abigail Valte assured that pursuit operations have been launched to apprehend the ASG perpetrators.
She said the families of the slain soldiers will also be given the appropriate assistance by the government.
While Abu Sayyaf abductions still occur, they are far fewer today than the massive kidnappings that terrorized Sulu and outlying provinces in the early 2000s, when the group had many commanders and strong ties with terrorist organizations, including Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiyah.
US-backed military offensives have crippled the Abu Sayyaf in recent years, but it remains a key security threat. Washington lists the group as a terrorist organization.
Philippine troops and police special forces, meanwhile, killed one of two gunmen who were trying to extort money Saturday from a restaurant in Sulu’s capital town of Jolo, Cenabre said.
Armed with pistols, the two men shot it out with government forces. One was shot in the head and died and the other was captured, Cenabre said. He said investigators were trying to determine whether the two had ties with the Abu Sayyaf, which is also notorious for extortion. (With a report from Genalyn D. Kabiling and Associated Press)