ZAMBOANGA CITY: A military investigation into the recent deadly attack by the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf in Basilan province showed that the militants were targeting the local brigade commander and probably other government officials in his group who were due to inspect a government road project in Sumisip town.
Col. Roland Bautista, who heads the 104th Infantry Brigade in the restive province, was to inspect a portion of the circumferential road in the town with Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Gov. Mujiv Hataman a day after the militants led by Radzmi Jannatul attacked and killed six Army soldiers sent to secure the area.
Among those killed in the November 2 attack in the village of Libug was 2nd Lt. Jun Corpuz, platoon leader of the Alpha Company of the 64th Infantry Battalion. Two other soldiers survived but were wounded in the fighting that ensued in Sumisip, a known stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf.
The soldiers were part a team of eight sent by Lt. Col. Melisan Raymund Recaido, the battalion commander, according to an army officer privy to the probe which was ordered by Armed Forces chief Gen. Gregorio Catapang.
“The group of Lt. Jun Corpuz was sent by the battalion commander to secure the area where Col. Roland Bautista was due to visit the next day, November 3, to inspect the road project in Sumisip town, but unknown to them, the Abu Sayyaf (militants) were already encamped in Libug and were just waiting for the arrival of the brigade commander and his party,” the source told The Manila Times.
“Col. Bautista was the real target of the Abu Sayyaf and the presence of the group of Lt. Corpuz in the village of Libug was just coincidental and unfortunate. The eight soldiers broke into two groups and the four were killed because of an explosion from a grenade, probably fired from an M203, and one soldier was even hacked by the Abu Sayyaf, and Lt. Corpuz was eventually shot and killed while trying to maneuver. Two soldiers survived the fierce fighting, but they are wounded as well,” the source added.
The officer said the investigation does not stop there because probers are now looking into why Corpuz was sent to Sumisip to clear an area with only a squad of seven soldiers instead of at least a section comprising 14 soldiers. Corpuz’s group was one of three deployed one kilometer apart from each other in Sumisip that prevented soldiers from reinforcing the embattled squad.
The source said before the troops could reinforce the embattled soldiers, only a small group of Muslim pro-government militias manning a detachment from afar aided the group of Corpuz by sniping Abu Sayyaf fighters. But the same group may have known about the presence of the militants in the village of Libug because they refused to join Corpuz’s team in securing the area and gave various alibis.
“That is also being investigated now. They may have intelligence information about the Abu Sayyaf, but did not share this to Lt. Corpuz and opted to stay in the detachment,” the officer said.
The deadly attack on Corpuz also exposed the vulnerability of the 64th Infantry Battalion – it lacks soldiers to effectively carry out its mission in Basilan. The battalion originally headquartered in Maguindanao province has only about 380 soldiers instead of 525, and many of its members have deserted or have gone on leave without permission after learning they would be deployed to Basilan.
It was unknown whether Recaido would be relieved by Catapang as battalion commander following the death of Corpuz and his soldiers.
Security officials said Corpuz’s team was patrolling the village when they engaged about 20 militants sparking a fierce gun battle that lasted almost 45 minutes. They said the Abu Sayyaf attack was meant to derail the completion of the 135-kilometer Basilan Circumferential Road project launched by the Department of Public Works and Highways during the time of President Fidel Ramos in the 1990s, but works continue up to now.