ZAMBOANGA CITY: The Western Mindanao Command (WestMinCom) of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) here reported that at least 18 government troops and five militants of the terrorist Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) died in a bloody clash on Saturday in Tipo-Tipo, Basilan.
WestMinCom spokesman Maj. Filemon Tan said more than 50 soldiers were wounded in the gunbattle that lasted for almost 10 hours.
The number of fatalities on the side of the soldiers is the biggest in recent years, according to Tan.
A similar encounter in Al Barka, Basilan, in 2011 left 19 government troops dead.
“Soldiers of Joint Task Group Basilan conducting military operations in Basilan province encountered more or less 120 Abu Sayyaf bandits under Isnilon Hapilon and Furuji Indama,” Tan told reporters in a news briefing.
He said the soldiers were attacked around 8 a.m. in Sitio Bayoko, Baguindan.
An intense firefight ensued between the ASG and the soldiers from the 44th Infantry Battalion, the 4th Special Forces Battalion, and 14 Cavalry troops.
More than 20 Abu Sayyaf members, including one of its leaders — Radzmil Jannatul alias Kubay — were injured in the firefight.
Besides the 18 soldiers killed, six others were also critically wounded. Military officials refused to release the identities of the dead pending notification of their families.
Tan said the fatalities on the side of the ASG included a suspected foreign terrorist, Moroccan Mohammad Khattab, and Ubaida Hapilon, son of ASG senior leader Isnilon Hapilon.
Khattab was a bomb instructor specializing in improvised explosive devices. He was also an Islamic jihadist preacher who tried to organize and unite local armed groups and kidnap-for-ransom gangs to link up with international terrorist groups to spread radicalism and extremism.
Tan said the firefight happened while the soldiers of the Joint Task Group Basilan were conducting military operations against the ASG under Isnilon Hapilon and Furuji Indama.
“Intense firefight ensued between government troops under 44th IB [Infantry Battalion], 4SFBn [Fourth Special Forces Battalion] and 14 Cavalry Troops against the combined KFRG [kidnap-for-ransom groups] that lasted for almost ten hours,” said Tan.
The wounded government troops were taken to military hospitals in Zamboanga City while the dead soldiers were transported to WestMinCom headquarters.
Tan said soldiers will continue to pursue the Abu Sayyaf bandits “and hold them accountable for their crimes.”
Gen. Hernando Iriberri, AFP chief of staff, and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin flew to Zamboanga to visit the wounded soldiers and condole with the families of those killed in action.
“Our troops fought gallantly and we salute them as they displayed the finest traditions of soldiery with utmost valor. We are truly better for their sacrifice and we will take inspiration from their exemplary service. After we grieve for our soldiers, we shall continue the fight to win the peace for our people. Our soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice so that the people of Basilan will be free from terrorists and secure a peaceful and bright future for their next generation,” the officials said in joint statement.
Lt. Gen. Eduardo Ano, Army commander, said top military officials are in Zamboanga to make sure that this time the ASG will be decimated.
“We are here not to actually investigate what happened but how we can continue the operation and finally destroy the Abu Sayyaf, lalo na ngayon na naidentify natin yung eksaktong location ng grupo so tuluy-tuloy ito (especially now that we have identified the exact location of the group, this is continuing),” Ano added.