ZAMBOANGA CITY: Government troopers who clashed with members of Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in the hinterlands of Talipao, Sulu believe that the bandits were high on drugs during the fierce firefight that started on Friday afternoon and lasted well into the night.
The encounter resulted in the death of five soldiers and 10 bandits and injury to 41 others. Among those slain were Abu Sayyaf commanders Hairullah Asbang and Julie Ekit.
Col. Alan Arrojado, commander of the Joint Task Group Sulu, said Asbang was the brother-in-law of senior Abu Sayyaf leader Radulan Sahiron.
“Among those who died were notorious leaders Hairullah Asbang and Juli Ekit. We accounted 10 dead and 15 Abu Sayyaf members wounded.
We are confident that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) can gradually decimate the Abu Sayyaf ranks,” he said.
Arrojado added that many of the wounded soldiers belong to the 1st Scout Ranger Regiment who were assigned to block the rebels’ escape routes.
One of the wounded military officers was 1st Lt. Michael Asistores, a member of the Philippine Military Class of 2007 and leader of the 1st Scout Ranger Company who expressed belief that the ASG members could be high on drugs during the firefights.
“The young-looking bandits were very daring and unmindful of our fires. They kept running towards our position despite being hit repeatedly. They were very ferocious and daring,” he said.
Aristores added that they also recovered marijuana cigarettes in the Abu Sayyaf lairs.
“The Abu Sayyaf borrowed their courage from the marijuana leaves that they smoked before the firefight. My men recovered some of the left-over of smoked marijuana in the encounter site. That solved the puzzle about their bravery in combat. They are drug-crazed fighters,” he said.
Aristores said at about noontime on November 14, his troops came close to the Abu Sayyaf positions in their forest lair at the foot of Mount Tunggul and Mount Bunga.
“It was my recon elements led by [platoon leader]Lt. Dante Espiritu who spotted the bandits in a makeshift hut. He radioed me that they will initiate contact as one of the bandits unknowingly approached their hiding positions in order to relieve himself,” the officer narrated.
But Espiritu’s group was forced to engage the bandits earlier than planned after they were spotted.
He said the Scout Rangers started trading fires with the bandits using assault rifles and machineguns.
Unknown to them, all surrounding hills nearby were occupied by at least 300 rebels led by notorious Abu Sayyaf leaders Radulan Sahiron, Jurim Hussein, Hatib Sawadjaan and the group of Asbang and Ekit.
Asistores said Espiritu called for reinforcement minutes into the firefight.
“I could hear Esprite’s [Espiritu’s] voice over the radio amidst the heavy volume of fire from various directions as they were surrounded by the enemies,” Asistores said.
He said he assembled a platoon to help the embattled soldiers.
“The bandits wanted to annihilate the platoon of Espiritu by attempting to surround them, so I positioned my platoon about 50 meters behind the bandits to join the fight,” he continued.
After about two hours of clashes, Asistores said he was hit by shrapnel, but continued fighting along with the other soldiers.
Asistores and his men are now recuperating in a military hospital at the Western Mindanao Command in Zamboanga City. They said they are willing to go back to Sulu and rejoin their unit to fight the Abu Sayyaf.
“I will gladly go back and be with my men in the frontlines. We must crush the Abu Sayyaf and end its kidnapping atrocities,” Asistores said.
AFP Chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang, Jr., who condoled with the families of soldiers killed in the fighting, ordered the military on Saturday to immediately send medical teams, mission-essential equipment and additional supplies for the troops.