Military authorities on Wednesday reported that state troopers have detained 13 suspected Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) members in Talipao town in Sulu, near the site of last Friday’s bloody firefight that left at least 15 soldiers and bandits dead and several others injured.
Capt. Rowena Muyuela, spokesperson of the Armed Forces of the Philippines-Western Mindanao Command, said personnel of Joint Task Force Sulu (JTFS) took the 13 into custody during a security operation in the vicinity of Barangay Budbunga and Barangay Kuhaw.
She noted that the detained persons, who were unarmed when taken into custody, gave different and conflicting reasons for their presence in the area.
The military official, meanwhile, refused to identify the 13 pending the results of an ongoing investigation by the military and police to determine whether they are members of the ASG or not.
The 13 were taken into custody at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday in Sitio Balikbayan, Barangay Kuhaw, which is adjacent to the actual site of the gun battle in Barangay Budbunga.
However, Maj. Edilberto Aramponi, JTFS civil-military operations officer, clarified that the taking into custody of the 13 people should not be deemed as an arrest.
He explained that military personnel only detained the 13 for security reasons and to prevent them from being caught in a possible crossfire between the ASG and state forces.
Muyuela, for her part, said, “They (the 13 taken into custody) were not arrested and are just being questioned by the authorities on why they were in the Abu Sayyaf area.”
Aramponi cited that the 13 people detained includes two children aged five and 10 and two 40-year old women. The rest are males.
Nonetheless, he said the 13 were subjected to an initial investigation to determine whether they participated in the operations of the ASG or otherwise sympathized with the bandit group.
“They reasoned out that they were in the area to harvest their crops, which is near the encounter site,” Aramponi said.
He also asked, “Maybe they [the 13 taken into custody]are [supporters of]the Abu Sayyaf because, if not, why were they at the area even if there has been an encounter?”
Aramponi stressed, however, that the military has yet to prove whether the detained persons were indeed members or sympathizers of the ASG.
He related that the 13 were transported by helicopter to Barangay Busbos in Jolo town.
Meanwhile, Col. Allan Arrojado, JTFS commander, said Friday’s incident was the first “major encounter” between government forces and the ASG since the military launched an all-out offensive against the bandit group following the release of two German kidnap victims a few weeks ago.
“It’s a major encounter. We are tracking their whereabouts, we are pursuing them,” Arrojado said.
Five soldiers were killed and 26 others were wounded in the encounter. On the other hand, 10 ASG members were reportedly killed while an undetermined number were injured.
Arrojado also disclosed that during follow up operations, the ASG and two of their kidnap victims were spotted in Barangay Bagsak in Patikul town.
WITH A REPORT FROM AL JACINTO