ZAMBOANGA CITY: The military has captured a huge Abu Sayyaf camp in Basilan in an operation launched to hunt down Malaysian jihadists hiding out in the hinterlands, regional governor Mujiv Hataman said.
Hataman said soldiers recovered a cache of improvised explosives in the rebel base in Al-Barka town, scene of recent clashes that left nearly three dozen casualties on both sides.
He said security forces continue its operations in Basilan, one of five provinces under the Muslim autonomous region, following reports that the Abu Sayyaf is coddling Malaysian jihadists. One of the suspected jihadists, Mohd Hussein, was among the 15 militants killed in the fighting.
The fierce clashes also killed three soldiers, one of them an army captain, and wounded 20 more from both sides.
Hataman rushed to Al-Barka following a near misencounter between security forces and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) members, whose bases are also in the town. The MILF, which signed a peace deal with Manila last year, complained that troops pursuing the Abu Sayyaf had fired on their camps.
“I have talked to the MILF leaders in the area and military commanders and everything is okay now. We have signed an agreement that would allow government forces to continue the operations against the Abu Sayyaf in coordination with the MILF. We don’t want any mis-encounter here between two friendly forces,” he told The Manila Times.
He said the military would hand over the captured Abu Sayyaf camp to the government and MILF’s Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities.
The rebel camp was under Isnilon Hapilon, who escaped the massive military operation and is now the object of an anti-terror mission in Basilan. Troops also destroyed dozens of trenches and foxholes and bunkers inside the camp which could house some 250 people, according to Hataman.
The fighting in Al-Barka also displaced more than a thousand families from the villages of Macalang, Linuan and Danapa. The families are being attended to by government social workers.
The military operation in Basilan involved forces from the Army’s 104th Infantry Brigade – 3rd Scout Ranger Battalion, 4th Special Forces Battalion, Marine Special Operations Group, and 12th Light Armor Cavalry.
The province is also being used by the Abu Sayyaf to hide foreigners and Filipinos they kidnapped from other areas in southern Philippines. Many innocent victims of the Abu Sayyaf had been killed and beheaded in the restive province of Basilan, just several nautical miles south of Zamboanga.
The fighting broke out just barely two weeks after the National Intelligence Board warned of potential attacks by terrorists in Zamboanga City and other areas in the southern region, including resorts frequented by tourists in Aklan in western Visayas, and Palawan province that forced police and military authorities to heighten security alert in those places.
Zamboanga police chief Angelito Casimiro said the city is now on red alert due to high threats of terrorism. He said there are persistent intelligence reports of bombings and kidnappings by terror groups such as the Abu Sayyaf.
Zamboanga City Mayor Beng Climaco said a team of US-trained soldiers from the Light Reaction Company of the Philippine Army arrived in Zamboanga to help police beef up security.
Just last month, soldiers also killed at least eight jihadists whose group has been linked by the military to ISIS in a fierce gunbattle in Sultan Kudarat.
Marines clashed with the jihadists in the village of Butril in Palimbang town and recovered five ISIS flags, including a .50-caliber Barrett sniper rifle, an M16 automatic rifle, a .45-caliber pistol, assorted improvised explosives, radio communication sets and various documents with intelligence value from the encounter site.
The slain rebels were believed to be under Mohd Jaafar Maguid, but it was not immediately known whether he was among those killed in the fighting. The local members of the radical group have pledged allegiance to the ISIS and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in August 2014. They also released a video in August 2014 threatening to deploy suicide bombers in the Philippines and make the country a “graveyard” for American soldiers, according to a report by the US-based SITE Intelligence Group which tracks online activity of White supremacist and Jihadi organizations.