ZAMBOANGA CITY: Government soldiers killed at least two Abu Sayyaf rebels in a fierce gun battle on Sunday in the restive province of Basilan in the Muslim autonomous region in southern Philippines, officials said.
Army Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc, a spokesman for the Philippine military, said the fighting—that lasted seven hours—also wounded six soldiers and at least two rebels. He said five civilians were also shot and wounded by rebels as they flee from pursuing soldiers in the village of Kuhon in Al-Barka town.
He said soldiers rescued the wounded civilians and rushed them to hospital as troops, backed by MG MD 520 helicopters, pursued the rebels under Abu Sayyaf leader Basir Kasaran.
“The bandits shot five civilians as they fled. The soldiers heroically rescued them amidst the heavy fighting and transported them to a hospital. Six soldiers were wounded in the seven-hour sporadic fighting that started at about 5:45 a.m. in Al-Barka. Two Abu Sayyaf bandits were killed while two others wounded in the clash,” Cabunoc said.
He said one of the air force helicopters was hit by enemy fire during the operation, but no serious damage was reported. “We also commend the heroic pilots of MG MD 520 attack helicopter that was hit by enemy fire while providing close air support. They are hero pilots,” he said.
Marine Capt. Maria Rowena Muyuela, a spokesperson for the Western Mindanao Command, said the fighting erupted in the village of Kuhon. “The encounter is a result of the persistent efforts of the Task Force Kasanyangan,” she said.
She said the task force aims to address the prevailing insurgency problem and revive governance in the town, a known stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf.
Mujiv Hataman, the regional governor, has in November ordered an all-out war against the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan, his home province, following clashes in Sumisip town.
But a local and influential Catholic Bishop Martin Jumoad said waging a full-scale military offensive against the terrorist group is not the solution. “Waging an all-out campaign against the lawless elements in Mindanao is not the solution,” he said, stressing that the use of violence to violence might even encourage more to join the group.
“Those perpetrators or lawless elements, we can’t do anything about them, run after them. Finishing them all? I think that is not the solution because that will just add more problems. I think the government must act like a mother that will look for aid in order to win their trust and confidence to the calls of law,” he said, adding, extreme poverty from which most people in Mindanao suffer is at the root of the conflict,” the bishop said.
“I have been in Basilan. Parang paulit-ulit na lang ang pangyarari [What has been happening is only repeated]. I think the approach should really be no longer through guns. I ask the government to really give more educational and livelihood programs to those areas, especially in Sumisip,” he added.
Sumisip is Hataman’s hometown.
The bishop said instead of an armed response, government officials should find ways to assure the rebels that Mindanaoans are not second-class citizens, and that they get educated and have the means to support themselves and their children.
Human rights group Suara Bangsamoro also warned that a full military offensive in Basilan could lead to civilian abuses and destruction of properties, and massive displacement of people.
Amira Lidasan, the group’s leader, has cautioned Hataman – whose elder brother Hadjiman Salliman is the congressman of Basilan – in his all-out war announcement against the Abu Sayyaf fearing that civilians will be targeted in the military assault.
“Such policy is prone to abuse of power by the authorities and would lead to more cases of human rights violations such as massive displacement of residents, death due to strafing and indiscriminate firing, destruction of properties, exposing women and children to harm,” Lidasan said.
She said previous wars against the Abu Sayyaf tied to al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiya had resulted in the exodus of civilians whose properties and livelihoods were affected by military operations. She said that in 2000, the government ordered a massive military assault, backed by US military forces, against the Abu Sayyaf and the biggest casualties were the civilians while the Abu Sayyaf still continues its criminal activities.
Lidasan also accused Hataman of contradicting himself when two years ago he and the other governors in the autonomous region said “never again” to all-out war policy in dealing with rebels. She reminded Hataman that in the previous military operations against the Abu Sayyaf, there were also reports of military clashes with Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels who are also in the mountainous area of Basilan.