AFP claims victory vs Abus

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — THE Armed Forces yesterday claimed to have achieved strategic victory against the Abu Sayyaf despite losing 23 soldiers in the battle.

Major General Benjamin Mohammad Dolorfino, Western Mindanao Command chief, said troops overran two jungle camps of the bandits in their deadliest clash in years.

A total of 23 troops and 31 guerillas died in the clash which Dolorfino described as a “slugfest.”

At least 18 more were wounded and four in serious condition, said Navy chief Vice Admiral Ferdinand Golez.

“It was really close-quarter fighting, so we couldn’t use our artillery,” he said, adding troops were still pursuing small pockets of fleeing gunmen.

Dolorfino said the Abu Sayyaf camps in the village of Silagkum, Ungkaya Pukan town is being used by the Abu Sayyaf to train new recruits, make bombs, sanctuary and hiding place of hostages.

Rear Admiral Alexander Pama, Naval Forces Western Mindanao command chief, said the captured camps are inaccessible to any type of vehicles due to its rugged terrain.

Golez said more than 400 Marines, Army and Police commandos stormed the hilltop camps on southern Basilan island last Wednesday in raids targeting about 150 Abu Sayyaf bandits led by two terror suspects wanted for a series of bomb attacks and kidnappings.

Heavy fighting ensued when a unit of Marine reinforcements met up with a large group of fleeing bandits, who outnumbered them and killed 18 Marines, Golez said.

The slain soldiers were brought to a morgue in Basilan. The bandits, who Golez said possibly included members of the main Muslim separatist group Moro Islamic Liberation Front, suffered 31 casualties. Troops did not recover all the bodies because the militants dragged them away, he said.

The MILF on the other hand, claimed that the latest clash in Basilan province is a test mission for new Marine recruits.

Dolorfino, however, denied targeting the MILF rebels. He said they coordinated with the MILF through the government’s Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities before launching the attack on the Abu Sayyafs’ training camp.