ZAMBOANGA CITY: Government troops, backed by helicopter gunships, assaulted an Abu Sayyaf stronghold on Saturday in Sulu where security forces are battling militants holding more than a dozen Filipino and foreign hostages, officials said.
Officials said army soldiers traded automatic gunfire with militants and engaged them in a running battle in the remote village of Bungkaong in Patikul town. Troops also seized an abandoned Abu Sayyaf encampment in the village.
The militants managed to escape deeper into the hinterlands, but a pair of MD-520 MG helicopters dropped high-explosive ordnance munitions on Abu Sayyaf targets in the area, according to army Col. Alan Arrojado, commander of the Joint Task Force Group-Sulu.
Arrojado said Armed Forces chief Gregorio Catapang has ordered military commanders to maintain pressure to force the Abu Sayyaf to release all their hostages.
“We will not give these bandits time to rest. Our troops will continuously pursue them in their forest lairs,” he said.
There was no immediate report of Abu Sayyaf casualties, but Lt. Col. Marces Gayat, commander of the 35th Infantry Battalion that clashed with the Abu Sayyaf, said reconnaissance troops spotted bloodstains in areas where the militants fled.
“We traded fire with them, but they scampered to different directions. There were blood stains along their route of withdrawal,” Gayat said, adding there were no signs of the hostages in the area.
The military said the militants are hiding in civilian communities and have moved their hostages from one hideout to another making it extremely difficult for security forces to track them down.
The clash occurred two days after Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin inspected troops in Sulu. He was accompanied by Catapang and Western Mindanao military commander Gen. Rustico Guererro and Rear Admiral Reynaldo Yoma, who are in charge of the operations against the Abu Sayyaf. Gazmin spoke with soldiers inside a military base in the capital town of Jolo.
The Abu Sayyaf is still holding Malaysian policeman Kons Zakiah Aleip, 26, who was seized on June 12 also this year following a clash in Sabah that killed another policeman. The militants are demanding 5 million ringgits (P68.3 million). They are also threatening to behead Malaysian fish breeder Chan Sai Chuin, 32, if ransom is not paid by his family this month. The militants are demanding 3 million ringgits (P41 million) for the safe release of the fish breeder, who was kidnapped along with a Filipino worker on June 16 this year from a fish farm in the town of Kunak in Tawau District in Sabah.
Aside from the Malaysians, the militants are still holding 64-year old Japanese treasure hunter Katayama Mamaito, who was kidnapped from Pangutaran Island in July 2010; and two European wildlife photographers Ewold Horn, 52, from Holland; and Lorenzo Vinciguerre, 47, from Switzerland, who were taken captive in the coastal village of Parangan in Panglima Sugala town in the southern Tawi-Tawi province in 2012. And several Filipinos kidnapped in other provinces and brought to Sulu.
It was the first time that security forces clashed with the Abu Sayyaf following the October 17 release of two German yachters Stefan Viktor Okonek, 71, and Henrike Diesen, 55, in exchange for P250 million ransom.
The Abu Sayyaf also freed an eight-year old girl on October 29 after her father paid an undetermined ransom to the Abu Sayyaf in Jolo town.