GOVERNMENT forces hunting down members of the notorious kidnap-for-ransom Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) returned empty-handed after four days of relentless scouring of the hinterlands of Sulu province in search of the bandits.
Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesman Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc on Tuesday said the bigger challenge for some 3,000 government troops is how to differentiate the bandits from innocent civilians.
Cabunoc noted that continuous rains washed out whatever tracks the escaping rebels may have left, making it harder to track them in the mountainous terrains of the areas being searched.
“It’s a challenge in tracking operations, for the reconnaissance elements on how to follow the tracks or traces of the enemies that were washed out by waters,” he said.
Cabunoc explained that the ASG camps overrun by the soldiers were actually communities or villages populated by civilians.
“There are houses there, and part of the challenge there is how to distinguish the bandits from the innocent civilians,” he said.
Cabunoc added that they are enlisting the help of former members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) who have joined the Philippine Army to identify the bandits from the civilians.
“We are reminded to protect the rights of the people. We are not supposed to harm them, we are not supposed to cause collateral damage if there are skirmishes right inside these communities, and that’s the reason why we also enlisted the help of these former MNLF rebels,” he said.
The military official added that despite the challenges, the pursuit operations will continue until the Abu Sayyaf bandits are captured and their 10 foreign and Filipino hostages are rescued.