'Full-scale combat rescue mission' vs Abu Sayyaf begins
MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine military is now scouring an area believed to be the hiding place of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) following orders to conduct a "full-scale combat rescue mission" for the remaining hostages of the local terrorist group.
“The troops were directed to conduct full scale combat rescue mission this morning,” military spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Harold Cabunoc told Rappler on Saturday.
The Philippine military ordered a rescue raid against the Abu Sayyaf following the release of the two high-profile German hostages, Stefan Viktor Okonek, 71, and Henrike Dielen, 55.
The Sulu provincial government on Thursday gave the go signal for "law enforcement operations" or joint police and military operations to serve warrants of arrest against Abu Sayyaf members and "relatedly rescue" the hostages. (READ: Sulu governor orders troops to prepare for operations vs Abu Sayyaf)
Colonel Allan Arrojado, Sulu island commander, said there will be no let up in the operations. "Ongoing operations namin. Nandito ako ngayon kasama sa tropa naghahanap.... Simula sa paghahabol namin ngayon without let up (Operations are ongoing. I am here with the troops.... We are running after them. There will be no let up)," Arrojado told Rappler.
There are now two brigades in Sulu composed of up to 3,000 troops. Elite units have been deployed, too. Cabunoc said the safety of the hostages and the civilians in the community are a priority.
Sulu public information officer Sonny Abing III said the communities have been informed about the military operations. No residents have been displaced, he said, but evacuation centers are ready if there will be a need to move them out of the areas concerned.
Troops have surrounded the Abu Sayyaf on Friday, October 17, hours before the 3 pm deadline to behead Okonek. They reported "eyes on" the hostages but rescue orders did not come. The Abu Sayyaf threatened to behead the German hostage if the troops continued to advance. Snipers, K-9 tracker dogs, and checkpoint patrols were in place.
The military said they are not aware of any ransom paid to the Abu Sayyaf and maintained that the pressure they had exerted on the Abu Sayyaf forced the group to release the hostages.
Abu Sayyaf spokesperson Aboo Rami, in an interview over a local radio station Friday morning, reported the troops presence and demanded their pullout.
Germany preferred negotiations over military operations, however. A German foreign ministry spokesman confirmed its crisis team officer Ruediger Koenig had been sent by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Koenig's task was "to take part in everything that serves the goal of winning the freedom of the two German hostages in the hands of Abu Sayyaf, and this process continues," the spokesman said in a regular ministry press conference.
The Abu Sayyaf spokesperson would later reveal in the same radio station that they received full payment of the P250 million ransom. This information was confirmed to Rappler by intelligence sources, too.
Malacañang on Saturday reiterated its no-ransom policy.