Pressure on military to show results in hunt vs Abu Sayyaf
MANILA, Philippines – Armed Forces chief General Gregorio Catapang Jr was back in Sulu this week for his 3rd trip this month to the province. Pressure is high as President Benigno Aquino III said last week significant gains in military operations against the local terrorist gang Abu Sayyaf Group can be expected. (READ: Aquino: Expect suppression of Abu Sayyaf in 'following days')
"We will continue law enforcement operations. There is pressure to produce results," military spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Harold Cabunoc said.
Sulu is again a focus of military operations. Troops were deployed last month to rescue German hostages Stefan Viktor Okonek and Henrike Dielen last month, but in the end the German government preferred negotiations. The Abu Sayyaf claimed that the full P250 million ransom was paid ($5.58 million)*. (READ: Abu Sayyaf frees 2 German hostages)
"One of the focus of the chief of staff right now is to turn around the image of Sulu from being the 'Kidnap Capital in the Philippines' into one of the most developed provinces," said Cabunoc.
The troops started hunting the Abu Sayyaf on October 18, a day after the release, to rescue at least 10 remaining hostages. It's been two weeks and the troops have yet to find where the rebels and at least 10 more hostages are hiding.
The Abu Sayyaf has focused on kidnap-for-ransom activities in recent years but it has also become notorious for terrorist acts like bombing and beheading of troops and hostages. Even Sulu residents have not been spared.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin joined the trip on Thursday, October 30. He said the President is asking about the operations there, but he explained that the troops are still familiarizing themselves with the jungles of Sulu, where a number of soldiers – most recently in 2011 – were beheaded by the Abu Sayyaf.
"I am here because the President wants to know the status of operations here in Sulu. We have new troops all the way from Luzon and others from Lanao province. They are still in the period of adjustment. We're checking how we can better support the operations," Gazmin told PTV4 in an interview in Sulu.
An Army brigade from Luzon and several elite units have been sent down south to augment the Marines. Navy and Air Force assets have been brought in, too, to provide air support and to blockade the island.
A total of about 3,000 troops are led by Task Force Sulu commander Colonel Alan Arrojado, who is returning to Sulu from the days he was a battalion commander there.
On the first two days of the military offensive, they found 3 abandoned camps. On Sunday, October 26, they captured 3 suspicious young men in the "interior area" operations, but they were forced to turn them over to village officials. On Wednesday, October 29, an 8-year-old hostage was released.
These are good signs, said Gazmin. He attributed the release of the hostage to the continuing pressure from troops.
"Dahil sa pressure ng military napilitan silang i-release yung bata. We will keep them on the run so that hindi nakapagplano. Hindi nakakatigil sa isang lugar itong mga kidnappers. Tuloy-tuloy ang movement nila. Ina-isolate unti-unti dahil dumadami ang puwersa natin dito. Napapaliit natin yung kanilang mundo," said Gazmin.
(They were forced to release the child because of the pressure. We will keep them on the run so the kidnappers are unable to stay in one place and plan their movements. We're gradually isolating them because our forces are increasing. We have been able to make their world shrink.)
Non-combat troops, too
Arrojado said it is only a matter of time. "Rest assured we will not stop our law enforcement operations even if we have some small credible results of accomplishments, tuloy-tuloy pa rin kaming mga sundalo at kapulisan," said Arrojado.
The military is bringing in non-combat troops, too, to engage the civilians especially the supporters, the relatives, and the mass base support of the Abu Sayyaf.
It's one of the issues raised during a meeting between the miltiary and the stakeholders in Sulu, said Cabunoc. Residents in the island, including children, have always been afraid of the military because the troops are always associated with combat operations. (READ: AFP chief to Sulu: Sorry for 'secretive' release of Germans)
Recognizing that the Abu Sayyaf threat cannot be given a military solution alone, Cabunoc said they're also sending Civil Military Operations (CMO) forces who will work with local religious leaders to explain to the residents that Abu Sayyaf activities are against Islam, among others. – Rappler.com