ZAMBOANGA CITY: At least 20 soldiers were wounded in a fierce battle on Friday with Abu Sayyaf rebels in Basilan, officials said.
The fighting erupted in Ungkaya Pukan town and spread to neighboring Tipo-Tipo town before dawn and continued well into the day after the rebels led by Puruji Indama, Nurhassan Jamiri and Basir Kaguran took cover in government schools, which were later regained by government troops, according to the military’s Western Mindanao Command (WesMinCom).
The Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) Public Affairs Office chief, Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, said Friday’s clash erupted around 2:25 a.m. at Ungkaya Pukan.
Indama was one of those responsible in the July 10, 2007 ambush of a military convoy in Tipo-Tipo that left 14 Marine soldiers dead, 10 of whom were later beheaded, according to Zagala.
The soldiers, who were in three military trucks, were on their way back then to their headquarters after a day’s search for kidnapped Italian priest Giancarlo Bossi when fired upon by about 400 gunmen, who, the military said, belonged to the Abu Sayyaf and the MILF.
Marine Capt. Maria Rowena Myuela, a spokesperson for the WesMinCom, said the Ungkaya Pukan fighting left a still undetermined number of Abu Sayyaf rebels dead or wounded.
There were no reports of civilian casualties but an unidentified speedboat that originated from Basilan transported a wounded man to Zamboanga City.
Soldiers were also deployed at Zamboanga City’s coastline to guard it against possible entry of other rebels.
Government patrol boats were also spotted off Zamboanga City, just several nautical miles south of Basilan.
Myuela said the fighting erupted in Ungkaya Pukan after security forces mounted a combat operation against the rebel group, which has been harassing workers at a government road project in the town.
She added that the operation was intended to seize Indama and his group who, she said, had threatened and tried to extort from the contractor of the Magkawa-Albarka Road.
Indama and Jamiri, according to Myuela, were also behind kidnappings for ransom and terror attacks in Basilan and other parts of Western Mindanao.
Army Capt. Jefferson Mamauag, a spokesman for the 1st Infantry Division, said in Friday’s firefight the government troops clashed with about 60 Abu Sayyaf rebels.
He added that Maj. Gen. Felicito Virgilio Trinidad, the division commander, ordered security forces to intensify operations against the Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist group linked to al-Qaeda.
Trinidad said two battalions of soldiers were involved in the fighting.
“More troops and closed air support have been dispatched to Basilan to pursue the Abu Sayyaf and to pave the way for the normalization of the area,” Mamauag said.
The military’s AHJAG and CCCH and the Philippine National Police had launched the combat operation, Myuela said, “in pursuit of lawless elements, primarily the Abu Sayyaf, which is believed to be responsible in several extortion and kidnapping cases [in these parts].”
AHJAG refers to the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group and the CCCH is the abbreviation for the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities, a part of the peace panels of the Philippine government and the MILF that ensure that a ceasefire agreement between Manila and the MILF is not violated.
Basilan is a known stronghold of the MILF, the country’s largest Muslim rebel group that in March this year signed a peace deal with the government.
With William B. Depasupil