FIFTEEN soldiers, including an officer, were killed while 12 others were wounded in a fierce firefight with more than 120 heavily armed Abu Sayyaf members in Patikul, Sulu late Monday afternoon.
The military clashed with the terrorist and kidnapping group at 4:30 p.m. in Sitio Kan Jalul, Barangay Maligay in Patikul town, Brig. Gen. Arnel de la Vega, commander of the Joint Task Force Sulu, said in a report to Gen. Ricardo Visaya, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of staff.
De la Vega said the composite team of soldiers from the Philippine Army’s 35th and 21st Infantry Battalions was conducting combat operations when it engaged the Abu Sayyaf.
The firefight lasted for an hour and a half.
The slain soldiers were identified as 2nd Lt. Ernan Gusto, 33; Staff Sergeants Ruel Catubay, 39 and Jay Erwin Almohallas, 38; Corporals Omar Raddulan, 41, Ronald Galoniga, 33, Elid Ismael, 49 and Salik Mandangan, 31; Privates First Class Nestor Bacaling, 26, Jison Falcasantos, 28, Gerald Yubal, 29, Dhendo Dujo, 32, Roselito Arnoco, 29, Glend Resma, 24 and Rogelio Vincoy, 28; and Private Jonas Lumayan, 23.
The military withheld the names of the 12 wounded soldiers, saying it had yet to notify their next of kin.
The AFP Western Mindanao Command said about two dozen militants were killed in the clash, but troops recovered only 10 cadavers.
One of them was the body of Mohammad Said alias Amah Maas, an Abu Sayyaf sub-leader blamed for the beheading of Canadian hostages John Ridsdel and Robert Hall earlier this year after their families failed to raise P600 million in ransom.
Troops operating in the area immediately rushed to the encounter site to pursue the terrorists. Other Army units provided blocking forces, the AFP said.
In a statement, Visaya said the “ultimate sacrifice and acts of gallantry” became the soldiers’ “driving force” to attack the Abu Sayyaf, who lost 25 members to Army-initiated armed encounters last week on orders of President Rodrigo Duterte.
“There may still be casualties along the way as we advance this solemn duty to eradicate these bandits and terrorists of 25 years, but we will not stop until we rid our country of the menace this [Abu Sayyaf Group] brings to the world,” he said.
Visaya told the soldiers to keep the pressure on the enemy until they wear out.
Aside from the various military units in Sulu, the Philippine Navy was deployed to the island province to make sure no one escapes and no reinforcements arrive for the terrorists.
President Duterte ordered security forces to destroy the Abu Sayyaf following the beheading of Filipino hostage Patrick James Almodovar on August 24. Almodovar’s family failed to pay P1 million in ransom demanded by the bandits.
2,500 troops to Sulu
In Malacañang, presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said five battalions or 2,500 troops will be sent to reinforce the military in Sulu.
“The President is focused on making sure that the threat from the Abu Sayyaf Group will be terminated as soon as possible,” he said in a news conference.
Abella, however, clarified that Duterte did not set a timeline for defeating the Abu Sayyaf.
“It should not be an extended engagement,” he said.
Not familiar with terrain?
The soldiers were said to have been unfamiliar with the terrain of Patikul, a lair of the Abu Sayyaf who are still holding nearly two dozen Malaysian and Indonesian hostages.
There was no word on the fate of the hostages, including Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad, who was kidnapped last year at Samal Island in Davao del Norte along with Ridsdel and Hall.
Duterte had said negotiators paid P50 million to the Abu Sayyaf for the release of Sekkingstad, but the terrorists demanded P250 million more. He did not say where the ransom money came from.
Over a hundred Abu Sayyaf gunmen have been battling security forces since last week in Patikul and Talipao towns.
Falcasantos, one of the slain military men, was reportedly beheaded by the Abu Sayyaf, who even sent a mobile phone message to the soldier’s family in Zamboanga City.
The bandits told the relatives, using Falcasantos’ phone, that they chopped off the head of the infantryman. A militant said: “Your son is dead. His head is gone, we cut it off yesterday.”
Falcasantos’ family replied: “You have no conscience.”
But the unidentified Abu Sayyaf member went on to say: “Of course. We don’t have conscience because they (soldiers) came to our place. I’ll also cut your head off.”