THE military captured two camps of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in Patikul, Sulu, on Sunday after the rebels were forced to withdraw to evade soldiers who were pursuing them.
The first camp found in Kabuntakas Village can accommodate 100 people, military spokesman Lt. Harold Cabunoc said.
The second, discovered in Sitio Lasal, Barangay Buhanginan, had 47 bunkers.
Both camps were discovered by members of the 35th Infantry Battalion.
“We were able to track them. Anytime there can be [an armed contact]. [At] about 3 p.m. [on Sunday]we captured an Abu Sayyaf camp that can accommodate 100 people,” Cabunoc said.
The military official added that there were reports that some of the hostages were kept in the abandoned camps.
“Yes, it appears that they have with them some of the hostages. But we could not confirm if the remaining hostages were with them,” he said. “We are tracking them and our troops are still there in the area, following them closely. We have tracking dogs.”
The camps were discovered after the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) launched a full-scale operation against the ASG in Sulu to pressure the bandits into releasing their remaining 10 hostages, including three foreigners.
Cabunoc said at least two military brigades, composed roughly of 3,000 men, were deployed to cordon the positions of the ASG.
“Our objective is to rescue the others because what we are trying to show here is we are not only after the German hostages. They were thinking that we operate because of the German hostages, we are [also]after the 10 hostages, and of course to punish those who are involved in this criminal activity,” he added.
Cabunoc noted that based on the order of AFP chief Gregorio Pio Catapang, the offensive against the rebel groups will be “continuous and sustained.”
“He [Catapang] is expecting results. There should have been a result yesterday [Saturday]. But it is expected that we would be running after them, hopefully our blocking force would be able to intercept them,” he said.
Cabunoc claimed that prior to the release on Friday of the two German captives, government troops had surrounded the location of the ASG but the bandits threatened to behead their captives.
He expressed confidence that the bandits will not be able to escape the dragnet launched by the military, saying blocking forces were set up in areas where the ASG rebels were spotted, particularly in the towns of Patikul and Indanan and in some areas in the southern part of Sulu.
Cabunoc said the hostages are being held in separate areas under different ASG commanders.
Besides commander Abu Rami, the leader of the group that seized the two Germans, there are other ASG commanders, among them Furuji Indana and Isnilon Hapilon.
“It does not necessarily follow that all the hostages were with the group of Abu Rami. Just like they did in mainland Zamboanga, they will bring [the hostages]to Tubaran and pass them to Furuji Indaman, and from Furuji Indaman, they will pass them to Isnilon Hapilon or whoever. They will hide either near the MNLF or MILF [areas],” Cabunoc said, referring to the Moro National Liberation Front and Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
Meanwhile, Col. Allan Arrojado, Sulu Island commander, said operations were ongoing in locations where the ASG terrorists have been spotted and troops are expecting a clash soon with the ASG.
Pressure, not ransom
Malacañang also on Sunday maintained that intense military and police pressure, not the payment of ransom, led to the safe release of the two Germans held by the ASG.
“The intense pressure of our troops and other law enforcement authorities who went to the area where the hostages were believed to be being kept forced the [ASG] to release their captives,” Presidential Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said in an interview over state-run Radyo ng Bayan.
He said the hostages — Stefan Viktor Okonek, 71, and Henrike Dielen, 55—were abandoned by their captors upon learning that government troops were closing in on their position.
The two were recovered unharmed by the troops late Friday night and were immediately flown to the German Embassy in Manila.
“There is no change in our no-ransom policy and they [soldiers]continue to run after [the suspects],” Coloma said.
But Abu Rami, who spoke for the Abu Sayyaf, said in a radio interview that they freed the hostages after ransom was paid.
The kidnappers had demanded P250 million for the Germans, and threatened to behead Okonek if the money was not delivered by Friday. They also called on Berlin to cease all support to US coalition air strikes against the jihadist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Sources in Sulu said a private jet delivered 12 trolley bags containing cash in Jolo and that several bags full of money were left in the plane.
WITH JOEL M. SY EGCO