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Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island. 2008 photo by author.

Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island. 2008 photo by author.

Plans to turn Philippine-occupied features on the disputed Spratly Islands have been postponed for at least a year as these coincided with the election season, the territories’ mayor said Thursday.

Eugenio Bito-onon, mayor of Kalayaan town under Palawan province, said the tourism campaign supposed to start this year will “most probably” be launched in 2017, after the new administration has taken over.

Representatives of the Department of Tourism (DoT) were supposed to assess the biggest Philippine-occupied feature, Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island, two weeks ago, but cancelled the visit, he said.

“Kinancel, partly because of election… Naabutan kasi ng election ‘yung Senate bill. So after the election ire-refile uli, a new start, pero after that tag-ulan na ‘yun, so most probably 2017 na [ang tourism campaign],” Bito-onon said.

Bito-onon, who himself is running this year for another term as Kalayaan mayor, was referring to the bill filed by Senator Sonny Angara which aims to declare the Pag-Asa Island cluster as an “eco-tourism destination and protected area.”

The bill, which also covers Parola (Northeast Cay), Kota (Loaita), and Panata (Lankiam Cay) islands, entails a call for funding from the DoT.

Overtures for making Kalayaan a tourism attraction were renewed in the past few years, with an eye at further cementing the Philippines’ claim to the islands, reefs, and atolls comprising the town.

These came amid China’s buildup of artificial islands and structures in nearby features, of which some were said to have been opened to tourists recently.

Along calls for tourism in Kalayaan were plans by the national government to repair the deteriorating Rancudo Air Field on Pag-Asa and building a jetty there.

Both construction plans reached bidding stage, but were shelved as the government wants to maintain “moral high ground” in the case filed against China at the United Nations’ International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).

ITLOS is expected to decide on the case this year, but Bito-onon said this was not a factor in the tourism drive’s delay.

“It’s more due to election,” he said.

Philippine election laws prohibit almost all public works and funding, especially during campaign period.

“Paano mo naman sisimulan ‘yung project kung walang pondo?” Bito-onon said.

Despite this, Bito-onon said he remains hopeful that the tourism project would still move forward.

He said the local government of Kalayaan had already pushed through with its acquisition of a steel-hulled boat, a project aimed at aiding both residents and soon-to-be tourists.

The project has been bidded out and the 22-meter boat worth P10.6 million is expected to be delivered this September, he said.

“This will be used for the safety of travelers,” as well as rescue operations and bringing food, water, and other supplies for residents in times of emergency, Bito-onon said. (John Roson)

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Three foreigners abducted by alleged Abu Sayyaf members on Samal Island, Davao del Norte, appeared in another video, calling on authorities to help save their lives by meeting their captors’ demands.

The 1 minute and 38-second video, posted on a Facebook page called “Pamantasan Ng Tawheed At Jihaad Filibin” Thursday morning showed Canadians John Ridsdel and Robert Hall, Norweigian Kjartan Sekkingstad, and a woman believed to be Filipina Marites Flor, sitting in a jungle while being surrounded by gunmen.

With one captor holding a bolo against his neck, Ridsdel appealed to the Canadian prime minister and other Canadians to meet the hostage-takers’ demands.

“Please do what’s needed to meet their demands within one month or they will kill me and they will execute us,” he said.

Hall said they are being held by the Abu Sayyaf for an amount of ransom unknown to him, and the Canadian government should act to get them out soon.

“We got one month before this happens,” he said.

Sekkingstad said he and his fellow hostages are being held by the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu.

“Follow negotiations and try to meet their demand within 30 days or we are all dead,” he said.

The woman believed to be Flor did not speak in the video, where the faces of almost all captors — including the one that held a bolo against Ridsdel’s neck — were seen.

One hostage-taker, who was wearing a black balaclava and sunglasses, spoke for the gunmen.

“We will give a warning for one month preparation for the family to meet the demand. Once you step… the negotiation within one month starting today, March 8, 2016 until April 8, 2016. Then, if you think that your policy is far better for you than the lives of the captives, certainly we will do something terrible against these captives,” he said.

A previous video clip showing Ridsdel, Hall, Sekkingstad, Flor and their captors appeared in the Internet last November, barely two months after they were seized in Samal September 21.

Sought for comment on the new video, Armed Forces spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said authorities have yet to determine its “authenticity.”

“Dinulog po natin itong material na ito, itong video na ‘to, sa tanggapan ng ating mga forensic experts at antayin po muna natin ang kanilang ilalahad at ang kanilang mahahanap upang ma-authenticate natin nang ganap,” Padilla told reporters.

He admitted that threats made by the hostage-takers are “serious” and said operations were ongoing to rescue the captives.

“‘Yan po ang ating isinasagawa, di po nagbabago ‘yan, at karamihan po ng ating mga naisagawa nang activities ay nakatuon ang pansin sa, hopefully, pag-rescue sa mga nasabing bihag,” Padilla said.

Last month, the head of the police’s anti-kidnapping unit confirmed that Abu Sayyaf members are holding the four people kidnapped in Samal.

Senior Superintendent Roberto Fajardo, director of the PNP Anti-Kidnapping Group, also confirmed that members of the al Qaeda-linked group are asking P1 billion in exchange for the captives.

Meanwhile, Padilla called on the public to be more “discerning” on what they see and share on social media.

“Maaaring sila ay nagiging bahagi na ng paninira na ginagawa ng mga grupong ito nang di nila nalalaman… Maging mapanuri at maging maingat sa inyong tinitingnan sa social media para di po kayo nagiging bahagi ng isang propaganda,” he said. (John Roson)

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Government troops seized two Abu Sayyaf encampments in Patikul, Sulu, after a clash with the bandits Thursday afternoon, the military said.

Brigadier General Alan Arrojado, Armed Forces Joint Task Group Sulu commander, said soldiers encountered about 30 Abu Sayyaf members in Sitio Mabusing, Brgy. Langhub, around 1 p.m.

Elements of the Army’s 10th Scout Ranger Company were conducting field military operations when the encountered the bandits led by Abu Sayyaf sub-commanders Muammar Askali alis “Abu Rami,” Namel Ahajari alias “Namel Gapas,” and Arkam Udjaman alias “Isran,” he said.

A 15-minute firefight ensued, until the troops seized a temporary encampment that can accomodate 50 people, Arrojado said.

Soldiers found a rifle grenade, M16 magazine with 45 rounds of ammunition, and foodstuff at the camp.

No soldier was wounded while intelligence operatives reported that two Abu Sayyaf members were injured, Arrojado said.

Members of the 11th Scout Ranger Company operating nearby later found a larger encampment, he said.

The other camp has 18 fox holes and can accomodate 80 to 100 people, and is believed to be where the bandit group’s “main body” had positioned, Arrojado said. (John Roson)

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Two Chinese nationals and a Filipina were arrested after being caught with P25 million worth of suspected shabu in Makati City late Wednesday night, police said.

Arrested were He Kaibei, 28, and Henry Lam, 43, both of Fujian, China; and Annaliza Villegas, 45, said Dir. Joel Pagdilao, chief of the National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO).

Elements of the NCRPO Regional Anti-Illegal Drugs Special Operations Task Group arrested the three in a buy-bust operation at the parking lot of a restaurant at Magallanes Ave. cor. Humabon st., Magallanes Village, 11:15 p.m., Pagdilao said.

Operatives confiscated about 5 kilos of suspected shabu, a Nissan Cefiro sedan (XAY-567), and recovered the P10 million “buy bust money” from the suspects, he said.

Charges of violating Republic Act 9165 are being prepared against the suspects, Pagdilao said. (John Roson)

– end –

Two persons were injured when a grenade lobbed by still unidentified men exploded near the home of Sulu Vice Gov. Abdusakur Tan in Jolo Wednesday night, the military said.

Injured were Andel Aziz Asiri, 31, of Patikul, and Haidar Hasim, 28, of Brgy. Tulay, Jolo, said Brig. Gen. Alan Arrojado, commander of the Armed Forces’ Joint Task Group Sulu.

The explosion occurred around 7:50 p.m. along Loay st., Brgy. Asturias.

It happened only about 150 meters from the home of Tan, who is running for governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao in the May 9 elections, a source said.

Authorities initially reported that an improvised explosive device went off, but Arrojado said a grenade’s safety lever was found later at the blast site.

Policemen cordoned the area and brought Asiri and Hasim to the Sulu Integrated Provincial Health Office for treatment.

Arrojado said investigators are looking at a claim that the grenade throwers were members of feuding clans in Talipao and unvalidated information that they were Abu Sayyaf.

Abu Sayyaf members are reportedly targetting civilians who give information to the military, he said.

Another security source said the blast “appears” to have something to do with Tan’s candidacy for ARMM governor. Tan is running as an independent against incumbent Gov. Mujiv Hataman and two others in the upcoming polls.

“Parang scenario eh, kasi kung target talaga ‘yung bahay, bakit hindi pa doon pinasabog? Pero hindi mo rin naman masabing ganun na nga, kasi hindi naman basta-basta makakahinto dun sa tapat ng bahay dahil may blue guards doon,” the source said. (John Roson)

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Authorities in Northern Mindanao have been alerted for a possible “spillover” of clashes between government troops and a local terrorist group in neighboring Lanao del Sur, police said said Saturday.

“The command, which is already on ‘full alert’ status, has intensified its intelligence build-up and checkpoint operations in its boundaries to contain and prevent a spillover,” said Supt. Surki Sereñas, Northern Mindanao regional police spokesman.

Members of the 10th Regional Public Safety Battalion have also been sent to augment provincial and city police units that share geographical boundaries with Lanao del Sur “in case of eventualities,” Sereñas said in a statement.

Lanao del Norte and its capital, Iligan City, share a vast boundary with Lanao del Sur.

Police units there are also “constantly” coordinating with police and military counterparts in the affected areas, Sereñas said.

Clashes in Lanao del Sur’s Butig town erupted last February 20 after about 80 to 100 followers of brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute attacked a military detachment there.

As of Saturday, troops have recovered five bodies of the Mautes’ followers, three M16 rifles, a sniper rifle, and two rocket-propelled grenades, said Colonel Roseller Murillo, commander of the Army’s 103rd Brigade.

Earlier, the military said intelligence reports indicate that at least 42 terror suspects, including Omar Maute, had been killed in the week-long offensive.

Three soldiers also died in the clashes while 11 more were injured.

Security forces have been pounding the hinterlands of Butig since Feb. 20 with OV-10 bomber planes, MG-520 attack helicopters, and Howitzer cannons, prompting more than 20,000 people living nearby to evacuate.

No clash occurred on Saturday, but soldiers are still pursuing the Mautes’ remaining followers, Murillo said.

The Maute brothers’ group has been proclaiming itself as a branch of the Middle East-based Islamic State of Iraq and Syria but authorities dismissed these claims, saying the local gunmen were only joining the ISIS bandwagon.

The group is “allied” to a certain Ustadz Sanusi, an Indonesian conduit of the Jemaah Islamiyah who was killed in a raid in Marawi City in November 2012, Armed Forces spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said in a recent interview. (John Roson)

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A foreign-looking man believed to be a German national was found dead inside a yacht drifting in waters of the Pacific Ocean near Barobo, Surigao del Sur, police said.

Fishermen found the man around 4:30 p.m. Thursday inside the yacht “Sajo,” about 62 miles from the shores of Barobo, said PO3 Val Warren Polancos, local police investigator.

“Yung mga mangingisda, pauwi na sana nung makita nila ‘yung yate. Nilapitan nila at tiningnan ‘yung loob para malaman kung anong maitutulong nila kasi sira na ‘yung sail. Doon sa loob nakita ‘yung foreigner na nakaupo,” Polancos said by phone.

The body, which was already starting to decompose, was found inside what appears to be the yacht’s radio room.

Documents found on the yacht indicate that the foreigner is one Manfred Fritz Bajorat, a German national, Polancos said.

“Foreigner talaga ‘yung tao, hindi lang namin masabi pa kung siya (Bajorat) talaga ‘yun kasi wala namang kasama,” he said.

The fishermen used their boat to drag the yacht to Cabgan Island and upon arriving there Friday afternoon, radioed for help from authorities in mainland Barobo, he said.

Local police have called in a team from the Scene of the Crime Operatives (SOCO) to determine what caused the foreigner’s death.

The incident has also been reported to the Surigao del Sur provincial police so it can inform the German Embassy, Polancos said. (John Roson)

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Government forces seized the lair of a local terrorist group in Butig, Lanao del Sur, following a week-long offensive that left as much as 45 people dead and 20,000 displaced, authorities said Friday.

Troops took the “stronghold” of Abdullah Maute and his recently deceased brother Omar before Thursday evening, said Maj. Filemon Tan, Armed Forces Western Mindanao Command spokesman.

“Sadly, three soldiers were killed and 11 were wounded,” Tan said in a text message to reporters.

Intelligence reports on Friday indicated that 42 of the terrorists, including Omar Maute, had been killed, he said.

Soldiers are scouring the group’s lair and have so far found two M16 rifles, a homemade caliber-.50 rifle, and two rocket-propelled grenades, Tan said.

Operations are still underway in the area, though air strikes and artillery fires were halted to give way to ground troops.

“Tao-tao muna at mga tangke ang pumapasok, naka-standby ang mga attack helicopter at kanyon kung kailanganin,” Tan said.

Security forces have been pounding the hinterlands of Butig since last Saturday (Feb.20) with OV-10 bomber planes, MG-520 attack helicopters, and Howitzer cannons, prompting thousands of people living nearby to evacuate homes.

20,000 displaced, more still fleeing

A total of 1,207 families are displaced within Butig while 1,328 fled to the adjacent towns of Masiu and Lumbayanague, and 2,446 more evacuated as far as Buadiposo-Buntong, Ditsaan Ramain, up to the provincial capital Marawi City, according to figures released by the provincial government.

The displaced families are made up of more than 20,000 individuals from five barangays, according to another count by the Office of Civil Defense-Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

“Continuous pa rin [ang evacuation], kasi marami ring naipit doon, di makalabas. Naglalakad na nga ‘yung iba palabas kasi di naman basta-basta masundo dahil continuous ang bakbakan,” said Saripada Pacasum, assistant head of the Lanao del Sur Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office.

“May nadaanan nga kami kahapon (Thursday), ‘yung sasakyan nila binuksan na ‘yung bubong, nilagyan na ng gamit para magkasya lang sila. Kawawa. Makikita na sila (evacuees) sa kalsada na paalis,” he said.

Relief goods short

While those who are fleeing still face woes along the road, some families who have already evacuated are facing a shortage in relief goods.
Pacasum admitted that the sheer number of evacuees has become a concern for relief operations, so the provincial government asked the ARMM regional government for assistance.

As of Friday morning, a total 2,507 familes have been given relief goods and authorities are still working to distribute to 2,474 more.

“Kulang pa, kasi plus ito pa ngang nadadagdag na evacuees, so tuloy pa rin ang repacking,” Pacasum said.

Governor Mamintal Adiong Jr. requested support and the ARMM government’s Humanitarian Emergency Action and Response Team is expected to deliver more goods Friday, he said.

Not ISIS

The Maute brothers’ group of about 80 to 100 men attacked an Army detachment last Saturday, forcing the offensive, Armed Forces spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said in a recent interview.

The group has been proclaiming itself as a branch of the Middle East-based Islamic State of Iraq and Syria but authorities dismissed these claims, saying there is no real link between the two and the local gunmen were only joining the ISIS bandwagon.

It is “allied” to a certain Ustadz Sanusi, an Indonesian conduit of the Jemaah Islamiyah who was killed in a raid in Marawi City in November 2012, Padilla said. (John Roson)

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Thousands flee Lanao del Sur clashes

More than 2,000 people have fled Butig town in Lanao del Sur to avoid getting caught in the middle of clashes between government troops and a “local terrorist group,” a disaster official said.

A total of 2,067 evacuees from Butig were recorded in the provincial capital, Marawi City, so far and more are reportedly coming, said Saripada Pacasum, assistant head of the Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction Management Office.

A “bigger number” of evacuees is also being reported in Masiu, adjacent to Butig, but authorities are still checking the figures, Pacasum said by phone.

Personnel of the PDRRMO and its head, retired military colonel Tatar Boriongan, have gone to Masiu to check on the number and distribute relief goods, he said.

The provincial government has convened a crisis committee meeting and is set to announce the figures Tuesday afternoon or evening, Pacasum said.

Residents evacuated Butig amid clashes that erupted on Saturday, he said.

Those who fled to Marawi, which is a two-hour land travel away, commuted and hitched rides on some passing vehicles.

“Iba-iba ang kuwento kung paano sila nakarating dito, may mga namasahe, meron ding mga sumakay sa vehicles na nag-offer ng ride para lang makaalis sila doon, kasi kababayan naman,” Pacasum said.

“Binobombahan kasi ng helicopters at saka ng artillery ng military ‘yung kalaban, so umalis sila (residents) para hindi maipit,” he said.

Initial field reports indicate that eight barangays of Butig are affected by the fighting.

Members of non-government relief organizations, including the Red Cross, have asked that they be allowed to visit the affected areas, and are still waiting for a go signal from the military, Pacasum said.

“Kinordon kasi ng military so ngayon wala pa talagang ng maka-penetrate sa area,” he said.

“Saturday pa nagsimula ‘yung bakbakan pero before pa, tina-try na hindi mangyari ‘yan. Kaya lang talagang matitigas itong grupo na ito ng local terrorists,” Pacasum said.

Army outpost attacked

Brigadier General Restituto Padilla, Armed Forces spokesman, told reporters in Manila that fighting erupted late Saturday when the group of the “Maute brothers” attacked the Army 51st Infantry Battalion’s detachment in Brgy. Bayabao, Butig.

The group of about 80 to 100 fighters is “allied” to a foreign conduit of the regional terror network Jemaah Islamiyah who was “neutralized” in 2012, Padilla said.

Two soldiers were killed and six were wounded, while unvalidated reports indicate that 20 of Maute’s men died, he said.

Troops operating on the ground were supported by Air Force OV-10 planes that conducted bomb runs on known enemy positions and MG-520 helicopters that provided close air support for maneuvering units, Padilla said.

“The group of the Maute brothers was held at bay, cordoned off by our troops, and are holding their position as of press time,” he said.

Pacasum, citing information from the military, said the “terrorists” are not members of affiliates of the Middle East-based Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

“Local terrorists lang, hindi totoo ‘yung sinasabi ng iba na ISIS. Walang ISIS dito. Naga-ISIS-ISIS lang ang mga ‘yan,” he said.

Convoy ambushed

Colonel Noel Detoyato, Armed Forces public affairs chief, said another fighting erupted between soldiers and a “local terrorist organization” around 10:45 a.m. Tuesday.

The fighting occurred in Brgy. Pantara-Bato, Tugaya, also in Lanao del Sur, when an undetermined number of armed men ambushed a military convoy, said Major Filemon Tan, AFP Western Mindanao Command spokesman.

Tugaya is on the other side of Lake Lanao, facing Masiu and Butig.

The convoy was transporting an armored personnel carrier to Brgy. Alog in Lumbatan town when it was attacked, Tan said.

One soldier was killed in the fighting, which lasted for about 45 minutes, he said.

Two MG-520 helicopters and a platoon of soldiers with two armored vehicles were sent to reinforce the ambushed troops.

Tan said the military is still trying to ascertain who carried out the attack. (John Roson)

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The number of deaths caused by typhoon “Ineng” (international name: Goni) rose further to 15 on Sunday as authorities retrieved more bodies from a landslide-hit part of Mankayan, Benguet, authorities said.

Armando Dayao, Felimon Adcapan, and Jasper Olivarez’s bodies were retrieved from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Sunday, after Crispin Ablao was retrieved Saturday afternoon, Benguet provincial police spokesperson Senior Inspector Joyce Ann Dayag said.

All four were among a group of people who went missing after a landslide hit Sitio Elizabeth, Brgy. Taneg, early Saturday.

A landslide washed out shanties used by pocket miners in that area around 3 a.m., Cordillera regional police spokesperson Superintendent Cherry Fajardo said.

After Ablao’s body was retrieved past 2 p.m., residents told police that they were still looking for 18 people.

Search and recue operations had to be halted around 5 p.m. Saturday because of rising water level at the nearby creek, poor visibility, and heavy rain, Fajardo said.

Operations resumed Sunday morning, with 95 policemen from different units deployed, Dayag said.

Dayao, Adcapan, and Olivarez’s bodies were eventually retrieved while Jonie Foster and Marpety Bayagen, who had been among those reported as missing, were found alive, she said.

“Both persons (Foster and Bayagen) were confirmed alive. Accordingly, they went home before the incident happened,” Dayag said.

Thirteen people are still missing in the area as of Sunday afternoon, data provided by the Benguet provincial police showed.

They are Ronaldo Angel, Paulita Angel, Ronald Paul Angel, Hohn Aluyan Jr., Jose Aluyan Jr., Efren Balicdan, Mark Balicdan, Nardo Mocnangan, Marvin Baturi, Harold Baturi, Rocky Mangrubang, Crisanto Ablao, and Ramil Reyes.

Andrew Alex Uy, Office of Civil Defense-Cordillera director, confirmed Ablao, Dayao, Adcapan’s deaths in a report emailed Sunday afternoon.

Olivarez’s death has yet to be included in the regional civil defense unit’s list.

Uy, meanwhile, confirmed a death in Tabuk City, Kalinga.

Julius Gumisa’s body was retrieved 11 a.m. Sunday in Brgy. Suyang, Tabuk, after he went missing in Brgy. Caluttit, Bontoc, Mountain Province, the regional OCD chief said in his report.

Gumisa was the lone fatality of drowning in Cordillera, while the rest died in landslides, according to the report.

Landslides occurred as the mountainous region experienced 721.6-millimeter rainfall, or 78.43 percent of the monthly average 920mm, from August 20 to 23.

“The soil is already saturated,” Uy said.

Meanwhile, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council said close to 33,000 persons in Cordillera, Ilocos region, Cagayan Valley, Calabarzon, and Mimaropa fled their homes amid landslides, floods, and tornados at the height of “Ineng.”

Some 12,510 persons went to evacuation centers while 20,407 stayed at the home of relatives. Out of the total number of displaced persons, only 8,426 were evacuated ahead of the storm, the NDRRMC noted.

Incidents caused by “Ineng” also destroyed at least 958 houses in Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, La Union, Cagayan, Batanes, Benguet, Apayao, Kalinga, Mountain Province, and Laguna.

The typhoon has also caused at least P124.818 million worth of damage to agriculture and infrastructure in Ilocos region, Cagayan Valley, and Cordillera, according to the NDRRMC. (John Roson)

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Two Coast Guard personnel abducted by the Abu Sayyaf escaped and have been found by government troops Thursday following a clash with the al Qaeda-linked group in Indanan, Sulu, the military said.

Soldiers found SN2 Gringo Villaruz in Brgy. Buanza around 7 a.m. and SN1 Rod Pagaling around 8:30 a.m., Captain Antonio Bulao, public affairs officer of the Armed Forces’ Joint Task Group-Sulu, said.

“Villaruz was able to escape from his captors at the height of firefight,” Bulao said in a text message.

Both Villaruz and Pagaling were not injured but have been taken to the Kuta Heneral Teodulfo Bautista Trauma Hospital in Jolo for medical checks, he said.

The duo’s recovery came hours after troops battled about 100 Abu Sayyaf members led by sub-commanders Yasser Igasan and Alhabsy Misaya in Brgy. Buanza.

Members of the Army’s elite Scout Rangers, backed by cannon fire, stormed a bandit lair in that barangay from 5:25 p.m. to 7 p.m. in an operation aimed at rescuing kidnap victims.

As much as 15 Abu Sayyaf men were reportedly killed in the clash though only five bodies have so far been recovered, according to a report from the task group.

Some of them were identified as Joy Juliyon, Arapat Bagadi, Majindi, Sarman Aidarud, Mandi, Arapat Hadjiri, Dunni Ammin, Salman Wahid, Majindi Kamlun, and Runni Said.

Abu Sayyaf members Abdel Dela Cruz, Sherwin Dela Cruz, Mawalil, Duni, Bidah, Lasis Jihili, and Kapatud Sarman were reportedly wounded.

Four members of the 1st Scout Ranger Battalion were slightly wounded, Bulao said.

They were identified as Pfcs. Elvin Bacalargio, Johnrie Melegrito, Johnzen Tagumpay, and Cpl. Earl Bompat.

Troops are still verifying information that Abu Sayyaf sub-commander Alden Bagadi was killed in the clash and have confirmed that his cousin Arafat died, Bulao said.

Villaruz and Pagaling were abducted along with Brgy. Aliguay chairman Rodolfo Buligao in Dapitan City, Zamboanga del Norte, last May 4.

Abu Sayyaf members threatened to behead the three if the P1-million ransom demand for each of them was not given.

Buligao’s severed head and body were found at a road junction in Maimbung town August 11.

Nine kidnap victims, four of whom are foreigners, remain in the hands of Abu Sayyaf members in different parts of Sulu after Villaruz and Pagaling’s recovery, Bulao said.

Villaruz and Pagaling had been spotted with 200 bandits and four other captives, three of whom have foreign-sounding surnames, three days before the assault in Indanan, according to a military report.

The foreign captives who had been with Villaruz and Pagaling are Malaysian and Korean nationals, Bulao said.

“Troops are still scouring areas around the clash site, looking for the other captives,” he said. (John Roson)

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As much as 17 Abu Sayyaf members were killed as government troops carried out back-to-back assaults on lairs of the al Qaeda-linked group in Basilan and Sulu provinces on Wednesday, the military said.

Up to 15 bandits were killed as troops encountered about 100 Abu Sayyaf members in Indanan town while trying to rescue kidnap victims, according to a report from the Armed Forces’ Joint Task Group-Sulu.

Elements of the Army’s 1st Scout Ranger Battalion clashed with followers of Abu Sayyaf sub-commanders Yasser Igasan and Alhabsy Misaya in Brgy. Buanza 5:25 p.m., the task group said in a report.

Artillery rounds were fired to support the Rangers, while soldiers from the 35th Infantry Battalion, 2nd Marine Brigade, and 32nd Infantry Battalion were mobilized to prevent the Abu Sayyaf from sending reinforcements.

Fighting lasted until 7 p.m. and clearing operations are still underway, task group public affairs officer Captain Antonio Bulao said.

Five bodies and three firearms have so far been recovered. No casualties were reported among the troops.

A report reaching the military headquarters in Manila indicated that the bandits in Indanan were holding six captives, including three who have foreign-sounding surnames and two Coast Guard members.

Hours earlier, around 11 a.m., another clash broke out between soldiers and another band of Abu Sayyaf members in neighboring Basilan.

Troops were conducting combat operations when they encountered about 60 bandits in an Abu Sayyaf “stronghold” in Brgy. Baiwas, Sumisip, Joint Task Group-Basilan public affairs officer Lt. Sally Magno said.

Two Abu Sayyaf members and a soldier were killed, while another trooper and six more bandits were injured, she said.

Combat operations are being conducted to “clear Sumisip of Abu Sayyaf presence, which has been hampering socio-economic activities and threatening lives,” Magno said. (John Roson)

– end –

Five New People’s Army members were killed while two soldiers were wounded as government troops clashed with a large band of rebels who ambushed them in Pangantucan, Bukidnon, on Tuesday, the military said Wednesday.

Troops recovered the slain rebels’ bodies, along with an AK-47 rifle, 19 back packs, food and medical supplies, and subversive documents, said Captain Albert Caber, spokesman of the Armed Forces’ Eastern Mindanao Command.

An officer and an enlisted personnel of the Army’s 3rd Special Forces Company (3rd SFC) were also wounded in the clash and have been taken to the hospital, Caber said by phone.

“Residents reported that there are at least five other rebels who have been wounded, so it’s possible that the casualties will rise. Clearing operations are ongoing as we speak,” he added.

The clash occurred 4:14 p.m. in Brgy. Mendiz, but was reported to the regional military command only Wednesday because of poor communication lines in the area, according to Caber.

Fighting lasted for one hour and 30 minutes before the rebels withdrew, he said.

According to Caber, elements of the 3rd SFC went to that barangay to check reports on the presence of NPA members.

“May nagreport kasi na may mga NPA dun, so pinuntahan ng SF to verify. While on their way, pinutukan na agad sila, so nagretaliate ‘yung SF. More or less 60 ‘yung nakalaban nila doon,” Caber said.

“Ambush talaga ang nangyari, kaya lang nakapag-return fire ‘yung SF,” he said.

The slain rebels have yet to be identified but information from the ground indicate that they were members of the North Central Mindanao Regional Commitee and were led by an alias “Andy,” Caber said.

Troops have already coordinated with the local government to help identify the slain rebels and facilitate their burial, he said. (John Roson)

– end –

Japan Self-Defense Forces chief Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano is interested in holding more drills with the Philippines, the Department of National Defense said Friday.

The DND made the announcement while warning that China has reached the point of “militarizing” the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

Kawano paid a courtesy call to Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin on Wednesday, after meeting Armed Forces chief General Hernando Iriberri, according to the DND.

Kawano expressed interest in conducting more exercises, “particularly amphibious landing exercises and amphibious operations,” according to a statement issued by Gazmin’s office.

Gazmin welcomed Kawano’s interest but noted that a “visiting forces agreement” is needed before such activities can be conducted.

Kawano, for his part, assured that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing for national security legislation that could expand the JSDF’s activities with the Philippines.

Kawano told Gazmin of the need to share information to address “common security issues” and noted the importance of capacity-building in humanitarian assitance and disaster relief.

During the meeting, Kawano also mentioned that China is trying to change the status quo in the region with its reclamation activities, according to the DND.

In a separate statement, DND spokesman Peter Paul Galvez warned that China’s activities in the West Philippine Sea are now in “militarization stage.”

“This is the worst stage of all, this is the militarization stage, and it must be stopped,” DND spokesman Peter Paul Galvez said.

Galvez made the remark when asked to comment on Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua’s announcement that China will build various facilities on reefs which it had reclaimed.

Zhao announced earlier this week that Beijing is set to build facilities that would support freedom of navigation, search and rescue, and scientific research.

“Maybe we should ask: ‘For whom are those search and rescue facilities for? Is it for our ships and installations that they are threatening to destroy?'” Galvez said.

“They’ve said one thing and have done another,” the DND spokesman said, apparently referring to China’s project in Panganiban (Mischief) Reef.

It can be recalled that China once declared a construction on Panganiban (Mischief) Reef as a “shelter for fishermen,” though the facility turned into a garrison after a few years.

Aside from Panganiban, China has also done reclamation and construction works in six other reefs in the West Philippine Sea.

Last May, China announced that it will build lighthouses on Calderon (Cuarteron) and Mabini (Johnson South) Reefs — which are both inside the Philippines’ claim line — to “improve navigation safety.”

“Regardless of what supposedly ‘good’details the Chinese leadership informs the peace-focused and rules-based international community, they illegally and blatantly continue with their aggression. These are mere elements of their island building militarization which needs to stop and be dismantled,” Galvez said. (John Roson)

– end –

Three civilians, two of them students, were injured as Abu Sayyaf members and village watchmen clashed near a school in Patikul, Sulu, Friday afternoon, the military said.

Injured were Nurhaida Jadja, 18, and Marni Suhuri, 17, both students of the Patikul National High School; and Hadji Anni Abubayong, 61, said Brigadier General Alan Arrojado, commander of the Armed Forces’ Joint Task Group-Sulu.

All three were injured by shrapnel from M203 grenades fired by the Abu Sayyaf, with the students getting hit on the head and neck, Arrojado said in a text message.

The fighting erupted past 2 p.m. near the Patikul National High School in Brgy. Taglibi.

Minutes earlier, about 40 Abu Sayyaf members led by Muammar Askali alias “Abu Rami” set fire to an abandoned military detachment in that village, Arrojado said.

One Engineer Makapagal Tammang, who handles a road project of the Department of Public Works and Highways in Brgy. Pandanun, then passed by Taglibi on a local councilor’s pick-up.

As Tammang neared the old detachment, gunmen flagged down the pick-up and tried to take Tammang by force, Arrojado said.

Firefight erupted when members of the Barangay Peacekeeping Action Team (BPAT) escorting Tammang resisted, he said.

Fighting lasted for about 20 minutes. Other BPAT members reinforced their colleagues, then the Abu Sayyaf to withdrew towards Brgy. Kabuntakas via Brgy. Bakung.

No casualties were reported among the BPAT members and the Abu Sayyaf, while the injured civilians were brought to the Integrated Provincial Health Office, Arrojado said. (John Roson)

– end –

An Abu Sayyaf member and a government soldier were killed while at least two other bandits and one trooper were injured in a clash in Sumisip, Basilan, early Friday, the military said.

Killed were one soldier and an Abu Sayyaf member identified as Samir Balaman, said Lieutenant Colonel Eliglen Villaflor, commander of the Army’s 4th Special Forces Battalion (4th SFB).

Elements of the 4th SFB were conducting operations 7:50 a.m. Friday when they encountered Abu Sayyaf members led by Pasil Bayali and Radzmil Janatul in Sitio Penas, Brgy. Upper Benengbengan, Villaflor said in a statement.

The bandits, numbering around 15, engaged troopers in a 15-minute firefight before they withdrew, Lieutenant Sally Christine Magno, Armed Forces Joint Task Group-Basilan spokesperson, said in a text message.

Two soldiers were initially wounded in the fighting.

“One is now in stable condition while the other perished during medical evacuation,” Villaflor said. He declined to name the two until their families are informed.

Villaflor said several Abu Sayyaf members were wounded. Magno said field reports indicated that at least two bandits were hurt.

The clash occurred a week after suspected Abu Sayyaf members detonated an improvised bomb at the boundary of nearby Tipo-Tipo and Ungkaya Pukan towns on Aug. 7, killing two soldiers.

Both casualties were part of a team tasked to provide route security for military convoys and commuters passing the area, according to the AFP Joint Task Force Zambasulta.

Bayali and Janatul’s group is responsible for the recent IED attacks which targetted military troops and civillian construction companies along the Basilan Circumfirential Road, as well as the destruction of the Maluso Water System which had left local residents waterless for three days at the start of Ramadan, Villaflor said.

Combat operations are being conducted to “clear Sumisip of Abu Sayyaf presence, which has been hampering socio-economic activities and threatening lives,” Magno said.

Troops have been sent to pursue the bandits who were encountered Friday, she said. (John Roson)

– end –

Two barangay chairpersons and an escort were killed while two other persons were injured in separate ambuscades in North Cotabato and Masbate on Thursday, police said.

Senior Inspector Sindato Karim, police chief of Pikit, North Cotabato, identified the fatalities in the second incident as Dhats Simon, chairman of Brgy. Bulol, and his aide Akmad Bantas.

Simon and Bantas were riding a motorcycle along the provincial road in Brgy. Gli-gli around 3 p.m., when two men on two incoming motorcycles opened fire at them, Karim said in a text message.

Both gunmen are believed to have used M16 rifles as 25 empty shells for that firearm were found at the crime scene, Karim said.

Simon and Bantas were taken to the Cruzado Medical Clinic and Hospital because of bullet wounds to the different parts of the body, but were declared dead by doctors, he said.

Investigators are still trying to determine the identities of the assailants, who quickly fled after the attack.

The shooting is believed to have stemmed from “personal grudge,” Karim said.

Hours earlier, around 9:40 a.m., a barangay chairwoman was killed and her husband was injured in another ambush in Placer, Masbate.

Killed was Rodilyn Camay, incumbent chairwoman of Brgy. Matagangtang, Placer, Masbate provincial police spokesman Superintendent Eugenio Manondo said.

Camay’s husband Romil, a former chairman of their barangay, was hurt in the attack along with one Giovani Liquigan, helper of a beer delivery truck that the couple passed by.

Rodilyn and Romil were travelling along a road in Brgy. Aguada on a motorcycle, when unidentified men “waylaid” and shot them with caliber-.45 pistols, Manondo said in an emailed report.

Liquigan, who was unloading beer from a truck parked beside the road, was hit by a stray bullet, he said.

Rodilyn and Romil were brought to the Cataingan District Hospital but doctors declared the former dead.

Romil and Liquigan were later transferred to the Masbate Doctors Hospital in Masbate City for further treatment.

Senior Superintendent Prexy Tanggawohn, officer-in-charge of the Masbate provincial police, ordered local lawmen to look into all possible motives for the attack to help speed up the identification of the assailants. (John Roson)

– end –

A teenager died after getting pulled in by an ice crusher at a fish port in Camaligan, Camarines Sur, Thursday night, police said Friday.

Killed was 17-year-old Angelo Tacorda, a resident of Brgy. Bagacay, Tinambac, Camarines Sur provincial police director Senior Superintendent Walfredo Pornillos said.

The incident occurred at the fish port in Brgy. Dugcal around 7:45 p.m., while Tacorda was picking crushed ice from the machine, Pornillos said in a text message.

Senior Inspector Aldin Oroqueta, Camaligan Police chief, said Tacorda was with some fellow workers at that time.

“Tapos na sila sa trabaho noon, pero may tira sa loob ng machine kaya inabot niya (Tacorda)… Eh ‘yung kasama niya sa taas, di siya napansin, nai-switch on ‘yung ice crusher,” Oroqueta said by phone.

Tacorda’s whole body was pulled in, and the machine bore holes on it, he said.

The families of Tacorda and his fellow worker, who is just about his age, have already met and agreed to settle the incident, Oroqueta said.

“Hindi na daw magsasampa ng kaso ang pamilya ng biktima dahil aksidente ang nangyari, tutulong na lang daw sa gastusin sa pagpapalibing ‘yung isang pamilya,” he said. (John Roson)

– end –

Rear Admiral Caesar Taccad took over as Philippine Navy chief Aug. 10, 2015 (photo by author)

Rear Admiral Caesar Taccad took over as Philippine Navy chief Aug. 10, 2015 (photo by author)

Newly installed Navy chief Rear Admiral Caesar Taccad yesterday downplayed China’s military buildup in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) but stressed the need for more firepower for the force, considered as one of the weakest in the Asia-Pacific.

“We’ll come up with acquisitions of needed firepower, additional firepower for us to be able to deter any naval force that would try to stop us from employing our assets to assert soveriegnty over our waters,” Taccad told reporters.

Taccad made the remark when asked how the Philippine Navy will respond to China’s military buildup in the West Philippine Sea, given the former’s limited capabilities.

Rocket-armed versions of the Navy's new AW-109 helicopters (photo by author)

Rocket-armed versions of the Navy’s new AW-109 helicopters (photo by author)

“Kailangan natin ma-cover o ma-patrolya ang karagatan in order to impose that we have sovereignty over this sea,” he said.

Taccad, however, noted that the situation with China is not as threatening as before.

“Considering that it’s much heated before, I think we are in a better position now. We are communicating with China, and more or less not as threatened as before. You know what they are trying to do and we try to maintain more or less a peaceful coexistence or settlement of what issue we have,” he said.

BRP Ivatan, one of two landing craft heavy (LCH) ships donated by Australia, was christened ahead of Taccad's taking over of the Navy (photo by author)

BRP Ivatan, one of two landing craft heavy (LCH) ships donated by Australia, was christened ahead of Taccad’s taking over of the Navy (photo by author)

Taccad also said that he does not see China’s reclamation and construction works on seven reefs in the hotly-contested Kalayaan (Spratly) Island Group as an “expansion.”

“I dont see any expansion from China. They have been there for a long time and they are guarding what they think is their interest in the South China Sea… No expansion happening, they are just pursuing what they think is their interest,” he said.

President Benigno Aquino III installed Taccad as the 35th Navy chief, replacing Vice Admiral Jesus Millan who reached the compulsory retirement age of 56 yesterday.

Millan bid farewell to the force with a literary piece that used names of the nine Philippine-held territories in the Spratlys.

Taccad, on the other hand, vowed to transform the force into a “strong and formidable” Navy.

Before the turnover ceremony, the Navy held a “christening” for two landing craft heavy (LCH) ships donated by Australia and two rocket-armed AW-109 Power helicopters acquired from Anglo-Italian aircraft maker AugustaWestland. (John Roson)

– end –

A littoral observatory station. (Navy photo)

A littoral observatory station. (Navy photo)

The Navy plans to upgrade its base in Cagayan and is set to put up more surveillance stations in Northern Luzon to boost maritime awareness, a ranking official said.

Up for development is Naval Base Camilo Osias, the forward operating base in Cagayan’s northernmost town of Sta. Ana, said Captain Albert Mogol, commander of Naval Task Force 11.

“[What will be developed there is] our capability to respond and to monitor whatever activities are happening in that area to protect our interests in the north,” Mogol said in a recent interview with reporters.

The base, which has its own airstrip, was “primarily” for humanitarian and disaster response activities, he said.

Mogol’s remarks came in the wake of reports that foreign poachers increased activities in waters around Cagayan and neighboring Batanes.

Recently, the Philippine Coast Guard reported that even Taiwan Coast Guard ships have been entering waters near Batanes and had engaged its smaller patrol boats in two standoffs.

Mogol said earlier that the Navy has already set up a “littoral observatory station” in Batanes to help monitor the entry of foreign vessels.

Marine troopers are manning the facility, which shares a building with the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration, he said.

More surveillance stations

Mogol said more littoral observatory stations are set to be put up in different areas of Northern Luzon soon.

“We are expanding, ang concentration natin is ‘yung situational awareness, ‘pag sinabi nating situational awareness, may radar, monitoring stations, kasi ‘yun ang kailangan natin dahil mahaba ‘yung coastline natin,” he said.

“We’ll be putting up several observatory stations in areas na hindi natin masyadong nakikita ‘yung nangyayari,” the official said.

In September 2013, then Armed Forces Northern Luzon Command chief Gregorio Pio Catapang announced a proposal to put up littoral observatory stations in Batanes, Ilocos Norte, Cagayan, and Aurora.

The Navy expects to set up six more “fixed” littoral observatory stations in different parts of the country this year in addition to the 20 it already has, according to a brochure it published in 2014.

The force will also use the frigates BRP Gregorio del Pilar and BRP Ramon Alcaraz, as well as seven helicopters, as “mobile” observatory stations and link these to the fixed facilities, according to the document. (John Roson)

– end –

Poro Point, La Union – One of the US’ newest sealift vessels was not challenged by Chinese ships while heading to the port here for humanitarian activities, a ranking US military official said.

Captain James Meyer, commander of the Task Force Forager on board the USNS Millinocket, said they did not even see any Chinese ship while en route.

“Very well, uneventful, great voyage, no problems,” Meyer told reporters in a briefing Thursday.

Captain Joel Roos, surgeon of the US 7th Fleet, said even the commercial plane he rode from Japan was not challenged.

“I flew on a Philippine Airlines from Tokyo so if there was a challenge, it could be in the news right now,” Roos said in jest.

Reporters asked the US military officials if they experienced being challenged by Chinese ships while heading for La Union, a province facing the West Philippine Sea.

Last May, a Chinese warship told a US Navy Poseidon surveillance plane to leave while the latter was flying over those waters.

The incident was recorded and reported by international news network CNN, whose crew joined the flight.

The USNS Millinocket, a ship that can carry as many as a battalion of troops and entered service only in May 2014, arrived in Poro Point, San Fernando City, La Union, on Tuesday to serve as a secondary platform for the humantarian aid program Pacific Partnership.

Another ship, the floating hospital USNS Mercy, serves as the primary platform and is docked in Subic Bay, Zambales, which is also facing the West Philippine Sea.

Also docked in Subic Bay is the Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarine USS Chicago, who is in a visit to showcase the latest capabilities of the submarine fleet.

While the Millinocket, Mercy, and Chicago are all docked in the country, it was learned that several other US vessels were underway near the Philippines as August began.

Among them are the guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen and the littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth, who were at the Philippine Sea and at the South China Sea, respectively, on August 1, according to information from the US Pacific Fleet website.

At the Pacific Partnership in La Union, a US medical task force will embark on technical exchanges and medical engagements, while Filipino and American troops are also set to build three two-room schoolhouses, conduct disaster preparedness seminars, and tabletop exercises that simulate disasters, Meyer said. (John Roson)

– end –

Poro Point, La Union – The Navy has merged its two regional units guarding the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) to boost efficiency in handling maritime issues, a ranking official said Thursday.

Naval Forces West, whose area of operations includes the disputed Kalayaan (Spratly) Island Group, was merged with Naval Forces North, whose area covers Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, Captain Albert Mogol told reporters here.

The merger was a result of Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin’s directive of “addressing a common threat,” Mogol said.

The unified naval group, activated July 6, is now known as Naval Forces North-West.

It has its headquarters in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, and operates Task Force 41 from there, while Task Force 11 commanded by Mogol is based here.

Task Force 41 now handles all areas in the West Philippine Sea including Panatag Shoal, while Task Force 11 retained “traditional roles” like patrolling waters of Northern Luzon.

“It’s now the country’s biggest naval task force, [covering] five regions and 24 provinces,” Mogol said of Task Force 41.

Under one command, troops and ships can be easily sent to respond to incidents such as poachers operating off Luzon then speeding away towards Palawan.

“What we want is a more efficient command and control against a common threat,” Mogol said.

The official declined to reveal how many ships and troops are now under Naval Forces North-West, saying only that a “sufficient number” had been dedicated.

‘Eye in the north’

Meanwhile, Mogol said the Navy has also set up an identification system in Batanes to monitor foreign vessels entering the country.

Marines are manning the “littoral monitoring detachment,” which shares a building with the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration outpost since March, he said.

“We have already an eye in the north,” Mogol said, declining to give further details.

Maritime security issues in Batanes flared recently, after the Philippine Coast Guard said Taiwan counterparts engaged them in standoffs near the northern island province. (John Roson)

– end –

The boom found off Zambales after it was towed to shore. (Coast Guard photos)

The boom found off Zambales after it was towed to shore. (Coast Guard photos)

(Updated 5 p.m. July 26) A long boom with what are believed to be Chinese markings was found floating near disputed waters off Zambales, authorities said.

The boom, measuring about 1 kilometer, was spotted around 3 p.m. Friday some 3 nautical miles (5.5 kilometers) west of Iba town, Lieutenant Commander Jonathan Marfil, head of the Coast Guard Station Subic, said.

Fishermen who saw the boom informed the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources which, in turn, reported to the nearest Coast Guard sub-station in Masinloc town, Marfil said.

The Masinloc Sub-Station asked fishermen to check, then at around 6 p.m., nine fishing bancas towed the boom towards Brgy. Sto. Rosario, Iba, Marfil said in an emailed report.

“Based on the statement of the fishermen, the floating object posed a hazard to navigation and was close to [a group of] corals,” he said.

Pictures obtained from Coast Guard Station Subic show that boom has a metal pipe connected by large orange floaters, and has what appear to be Chinese markings.

The pipe has a diameter of 1.5 meters while each floater has a diameter of 2 meters, according to Marfil’s report.

“Para siyang spill boom, parang pangharang ang porma… ‘Yung plastic na pangharang niya, orange. May Chinese na nakasulat,” a personnel at CGS-Subic said, when interviewed Saturday.

Authorities are still trying to determine where the boom came from, who brought it near Zambales, and why.

DND ‘disturbed’

Kids play on the boom found off Zambales after it was towed to shore. (Coast Guard photos)

Kids play on the boom found off Zambales after it was towed to shore. (Coast Guard photos)

The Department of National Defense, for its part, said it was “disturbed” over the boom’s discovery.

“This is a disturbing development, given that the booms were supposedly found well within our EEZ (exclusive economic zone),” DND spokesman Peter Paul Galvez said.

Iba is only one town away from Masinloc, the municipality which treats Panatag Shoal as part of its territory despite China’s occupation of the rocky outcrop.

“Hinihintay pa namin ang report kung saan galing itong floating object na ito,” Seaman 2nd Rio Omar, of CGS-Subic, said when asked if the boom could have come from Panatag.

China is presently occupying the shoal, which it calls “Huangyan Island,” and has been preventing the entry of Filipino fishermen with its law enforcement ships.

The occupation came after the 2012 standoff with the Philippine Navy, which tried to arrest Chinese poachers at the shoal, which Masinloc has been calling Bajo de Masinloc since the Spanish colonial period. (John Roson)

– end –

A US Navy LCU participating in last April's Balikatan exercises in Zambales (photo by author)

A US Navy LCU participating in last April’s Balikatan exercises in Zambales (photo by author)

The Philippine Navy has received a landing ship donated by South Korea and is now repairing it ahead of deployments for post-disaster and military operations.

Navy chief Vice Admiral Jesus Millan said the landing craft utility (LCU) from South Korea arrived May 30 and is now at the naval shipyard in Cavite for “some machinery and equipment repairs.”

South Korea handed the vessel for free, along with 16 rubber boats, with the Navy paying only P16 million for the shipping cost, Millan said.

“It was shipped direct from Korea… We just paid for its shipping cost. It will be a big boost for HADR (humanitarian assistance and disaster relief) operations and troop transport,” he said in a text message.

US Navy LCU-1631 and USS Green Bay during April's Balikatan exercises in Zambales (photo by author)

US Navy LCU-1631 and USS Green Bay during April’s Balikatan exercises in Zambales (photo by author)

Current repairs are estimated to cost P26 million which, even if added to the shipping cost, is way lower than buying a brand new LCU for P6 billion, Millan said.

Before this, the Navy only had five LCUs, of which three are in operation and two are undergoing repairs, according to Millan.

The newly-arrived LCU has better capabilities than the ones already in the fleet because it is of a newer model, he said.

South Korea offered the LCU, rubber boats, and computers when Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin visited that country in June 2014.

US Navy LCU 1651 (photo from Wikipedia Commons)

US Navy LCU 1651 (photo from Wikipedia Commons)

South Korean officials said the offer — which came amid the Philippines’ territorial row with China in the West Philippine Sea — is for expressing their gratitude to Filipino soldiers’ role in the Korean War during the 1950s.

Following Gazmin’s visit to Seoul, the Department of Foreign Affairs said South Korea will also donate a “Pohang”-class corvette — a type of warship — to the Navy.

Government officials, however, have been mum on the corvette since then, as talk came out that China was “angered” by the offer and threatened to “unleash” North Korea against the South if it continues “arming” the Philippines. (John Roson)

– end –

An FA-50 fighter jet. (photo grabbed from KAI website http://www.koreaaero.com/)

An FA-50 fighter jet. (photo grabbed from KAI website http://www.koreaaero.com/)

The Armed Forces’ Central Command in Cebu has started building facilities to host fighter jets and other aircraft which the Air Force will use for territorial defense, military officials said.

Lieutenant General Jeffrey Delgado, Air Force chief, said the Central Command, particularly the 2nd Air Division, was chosen to host new aircraft because of its “strategic location,” which allows it to quickly send planes to Luzon in the north, Mindanao in the south, or Palawan in the west.

“We intend to put up more hangars here for our fighter aircraft and our transport aircraft and helicopters,” Delgado said in an interview by state-run television PTV-4.

Lieutenant General Nicanor Vivar, Centcom chief, said construction of hangars at the 2nd Air Division started about three months ago.

Construction projects presently being carried out fall under the AFP Modernization’s “First Horizon,” which has a total cost of P90 billion, Vivar said.

“A lot of development will be done here soon,” including docks for Navy ships, he said.

The Department of National Defense earlier announced that it allocated P135.99 million for base support systems of fighter jets, particularly the South Korean-made FA-50 lead-in fighter trainer jets.

Aircraft maker Korea Aerospace industries said earlier this week that it aims to deliver the first two of 12 FA-50s ordered by the Philippines by yearend.

Colonel Enrico Canaya, Air Force spokesman, said that aside from the two fighter jets, the PAF expects to recieve 20 other aircraft from suppliers this year.

These include two C-295 medium lift planes, eight combat-utility helicopters, eight AW-109 attack helicopters, and two CN-212i light lift planes, Canaya told reporters in Camp Aguinaldo Friday.

Developments at the Central Command come as the Mactan-Cebu International Airport (MCIA), where the 2nd Air Division is “co-located,” embarks on a project to upgrade facilities, including its runway.

Vivar said that aside from becoming a hub for modern military aircraft, Central Command is also being eyed as the home of the AFP’s “strategic command.”

“External defense, nandiyan na tayo… this will be the home of the strategic command, hopefully, and that will cater to the territorial defense of the country,” he said. (John Roson)

– end –

Outgoing Armed Forces chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang said additional troops have been deployed to Batanes to help prevent intrusions, and suggested that a naval base be built there.

“The next na kailangan i-develop natin, maghanap tayo ng magandang naval base, o i-develop natin na naval base, dun sa Batanes,” Catapang said in an interview by state-run television PTV-4.

The military chief said he has already told the Navy about the plan, which should be implemented after building the naval base in Oyster Bay, Palawan.

The base being built in Oyster Bay is envisioned to guard against intrusions in the West Philippine Sea, where China is reclaiming and building structures on reefs. The planned facility in Batanes should guard against poachers, usually from Taiwan.

“I think this year they will ask for funding,” Catapang said.

Catapang made the remarks as he revealed that an additional platoon of Navy personnel have been sent to Batanes, where Filipino and Taiwanese coast guard members recently figured in standoffs.

“It’s the marching order of the President to also look into that area,” he said.

Navy chief Vice Admiral Jesus Milan, for his part, said forces in Batanes were increased “to secure mission-essential facilities being used for monitoring activities in the maritime domain.”

Navy personnel there are also tasked to plan for “improvements,” including the development of areas where boats can be docked, Millan told reporters by phone.

According to Millan, the Navy currently has no base in Batanes and sailors assigned there are only staying at offices of other government agencies.

Meanwhile, the Navy chief said more sailors were also deployed to Zambales and other “strategic areas” around the country to prevent the entry of poachers.

“Increasing ang poaching activities so we need to improve on our system and procedures… Ang problema lang, wala nga tayong pera to support the modernization of facilities,” he said. (John Roson)

– end –

The Philippines is interested in acquiring P3 Orion surveillance planes from Japan, the Department of National Defense said Thursday.

Peter Paul Galvez, DND spokesman, confirmed the department’s intent after reports indicated that the country may acquire at least four P3s from Japan by yearend.

“Tinitingnan if it will become an excess defense article. When it becomes an excess defense article, then we can get it at a very low price,” Galvez told reporters.

Galvez, however, could not say how many P3s are being considered for acquisition.

Japan’s navy is currently using P3 Orions in a joint training with Philippine Navy sailors in waters off Palawan, near the disputed West Philippine Sea.

Fernando Manalo, defense undersecretary for modernization, said the plan to acquire P3s is “separate” from the DND project to buy two long-range patrol aircraft (LRPA).

Manalo made the remark when asked on reports that the acquisition of P3s has been substituted for the LRPA project, which is currently suspended because President Aquino has yet to approve parts of the AFP Modernization Program.

The DND plans to buy two long-range patrol aircraft for the Air Force for P5.97 billion. (John Roson)

– end –

Four persons were killed while almost 4,000 were affected by floods and landslides caused by heavy rain in four provinces of Central Mindanao, authorities reported Thursday.

Floods and landslides affected 43 barangays in nine towns and two cities of South Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, North Cotabato, and Sarangani, said Minda Morante, director of the Office of Civil Defense-12.

Tupi town of South Cotabato and Brgy. Rajah Muda of Tacurong City, Sultan Kudarat, declared a state of calamity because of the floods, Morante said in an emailed report.

Couple Nonoy, 74, and Monita Ga, 71, of Brgy. Bunao, Tupi, South Cotabato; Diron Tamarang, 70, of Brgy. Lunen, also in Tupi; and Anita Ochova, 63, of Glan, Sarangani, died in landslides caused by heavy rain, she said.

Five persons, identified as Mercy Magbanua, 27; Kathlyn Magbanua, 1; Jay Argal, 24; Cristy Ochova, 31, and one Jojit Mangisel were injured, she said.

Of the 3,985 individuals affected by floods, 1,798 were evacuated and are currently staying in barangay halls, daycare centers, gymnasiums, and homes of relatives, Morante said.

Most of the evacuees came from Tacurong City and Isulan, Sultan Kudarat; Koronadal City and Tupi, South Cotabato; and Glan, Sarangani.

Floods also left at least four bridges impassable to motorists and caused at least P6.9 million in damage to agriculture, Morante said.

More than 500 hectares of rice fields, more than 80 hectares of cornfields, and at least 7.5 hectares of fishponds were damaged because of the floods, which also left at least 50 farm animals dead or missing, she said.

Heavy rains brought by an intertropical convergence zone hit South Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, North Cotabato, and Sarangani from Tuesday night until Wednesday morning, causing the floods, according to Morante.

Local governments are now providing relief goods to the evacuees and are still monitoring the situation in affected areas, she said. (John Roson)

– end –

A cameraman of the local affiliate of international media network CNN died after being shot by a still unidentified assailant in what police initially see as a work-related killing, in Imus City, Cavite, early Thursday.

Jonathan Oldan, a driver and assistant cameraman of CNN Philippines, died after being shot several times, Cavite provincial police director Senior Superintendent Jonnel Estomo said.

The 29-year-old Oldan was shot along Bukaneg st., Brgy. Pinagbuklod, around 5:15 a.m., Estomo said in a text message.

“He (Oldan) was shot to death on the way to work this morning,” CNN Philippines said in a statement.

“Naglalakad siya papunta sa sakayan ng jeep right after bumili ng sigarilyo,” Estomo said.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), citing information from Oldan’s colleagues, said he was seen talking to somebody but witnesses saw him running a few minutes later, then he was shot to the head.

After the incident, the assailant fled with the weapon used, Estomo said, adding that Imus police have interviewed some bystanders who might have seen the incident.

Estomo said investigators see a possible link between the killing and Oldan’s work as a cameraman.

“Yes, pero hindi pa enough ang evidence namin,” the police official said.

CNN Philippines, meanwhile, condemned the incident and demanded justice for the slain cameraman.

“We deplore the killing of our colleague… We demand that his assailant/assailants be brought to justice. CNN Philippines condemns this act and will spare no effort to bring the criminal/criminals to justice,” the company said.

“If proven to be work related, Oldan will be the third journalist to be killed this year, 27th under the Aquino presidency and 167th since 1986,” the NUJP said.

Estomo said he has created Special Investigation Task Group “Oldan” to conduct a deeper probe into the incident. (John Roson)

– end –

The Philippines’ first lead-in fighter trainer (LIFT) jet successfully completed its first flight in South Korea, aircraft maker Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) announced Wednesday.

The “FA-50PH” made its maiden flight on June 19, after the Philippines signed a contract to buy 12 units in March 2014, KAI said in its Facebook page.

“We will our best to deliver initial two aircraft by the end of this year,” the company said.

Fernando Manalo, defense undersecretary for modernization, said KAI may deliver two of the jets by the third quarter of 2015.

“It will be possible for the FA-50s to feature in the Armed Forces’ 80th anniversary,” he said in an interview during the military’s 79th anniversary last December.

Colonel Enrico Canaya, Air Force spokesman, called the first jet’s maiden flight a “positive development.”

“It’s a good sign that we are about to become a more modern PAF soon,” Canaya said in a text message to reporters.

The government signed a contract to buy 12 brand-new FA-50s for P18.9 billion in March 2014, amid China’s buildup in the West Philipppine Sea (South China Sea).

Three Air Force pilots are presently in South Korea to train in operating the FA-50s.

The pilots were chosen for the jet project after registering more than a thousand hours flying Marchetti S-211 planes, Colonel Miguel Ernesto Okol, director for operations of the Air Force’s Air Defense Wing, told reporters in December.

The Philippines’ air defense was reduced to the S-211s when the country retired its last seven F5 fighter jets in 2005, after the latter had served for 40 years.

The S-211s were originally designed as trainers and secondary attack planes, but were refitted with avionics equipment and machine guns in recent years to take on air defense.

KAI’s FA-50 jets rake the sky with speeds of up to 1.5 times the speed of sound, compared to the S-211s that fly at a maximum 667 kilometers per hour.

It can be fitted with missiles like the AIM-9 “Sidewinder” air-to-air and heat-seeking missile, aside from light automatic cannons.

The FA-50 will act as the country’s interim fighter until the Philippines gets enough experience of operating fast jets and eventually acquire “multi-role fighters.” (John Roson)

– end –

Members of the Philippine and Japanese navies will hold more trainings this month to beef up maritime awareness amid China’s continuing buildup in the region.

Colonel Edgard Arevalo, Philippine Navy spokesman, the trainings will be held when members of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) visit the country from June 22 to 26.

“The Philippine Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) are exploring areas of training and cooperation — among them humanitarian assistance and disaster response, maritime search and rescue, and maritime situational awareness… These are the activities lined up for the JMSDF visit,” he said.

Arevalo said a JMSDF aircraft will take part in the exercises but declined to reveal its type, as well as the area where the trainings will be held.

Japanese broadcaster NHK reported earlier that the JMSDF will send a P-3C Orion surveillance plane for the drills while the Philippine Navy is set to use a vessel and aircraft.

It said the exercises will be held in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

Staff-to-staff talks will also be held to strengthen and institutionalize information-sharing in a bid to “step-up maritime situational awareness,” Arevalo said.

“This navy-to-navy engagement envisions to share new tactics, techniques, and procedures as well as best practices to further maritime operations,” he added.

This month’s drills come amid tensions stemming from China’s reclamation activities in the West Philippine Sea.

They will be the third between the Philippine and Japanese navies in just two years.

The two navies held “passing exercises” in parts of the West Philippine Sea off Palawan and Zambales provinces — where China has been building up its presence — on September 25, 2014 and last May 12, respectively.

The upcoming drills also come a week after President Benigno Aquino III and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed on a transfer of defense equipment and stronger cooperation between the two countries’ militaries.

Japan and the Philippines are presently locked in a common maritime dispute with China in the East Sea and West Philippine Sea, respectively. (John Roson)

– end –

Five suspected communist rebels were killed while another was captured in a clash with policemen in Mexico, Pampanga, early Tuesday, police said.

Killed were four men and a woman who are all believed to be members of the Marxist-Leninist Party of the Philippines-Rebolusyunaryong Hukbong Bayan (MLPP-RHB), Pampanga provincial police director Senior Superintendent Rodolfo Recomono said.

The five were later identified as Roel Gomez alias “Ka Remy,” 32; Ruth Liberty Vudade-Abalong, 29; Evan Balaguis alias “Ka Lina,” 23; Renato Nucum alias “Toys,” 52; and Aries Nucum alias “Ka Amy, 25.

They were brought to the Mexico Community Hospital for treatment after the clash, but all were pronounced dead by doctors, provincial police spokesperson Superintendent Anna Liza Guzman said.

One Ryan Lising, 28, was arrested after authorities found him carrying a loaded caliber-.45 pistol, she said.

The clash occurred around 1:20 a.m. in Brgy. San Jose Matulid.

Elements of the provincial police’s intelligence branch, Special Weapons and Tactics unit, and Mexico Police carried out an operation after learning of the presence of MLPP-RHB members in the area, Recomono said in a text message.

The suspects were allegedly involved in incidents of robbery/hold-up, car thefts, as well as gun-for-hire and extortion activities, in Pampanga and nearby provinces, he said.

Operatives seized four short firearms, two Carbine rifles, an M16 rifle, a hand grenade, a bow and three arrows, a crossbow, subversive documents, electronic gadgets, and a pair of binoculars from the suspects, Guzman said.

Four unregistered motorcycles were also found at the scene, Recomono said.

The MLPP-RHB, whose members are mostly based in Central Luzon, is a group that broke away from the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army in the 90s. (John Roson)

– end –

Taiwan's cutter 118 (photo from Taiwan Coast Guard website)

Taiwan’s cutter 118 (photo from Taiwan Coast Guard website)

A Taiwan Coast Guard ship launched speedboats and threatened to shoot a Philippine patrol vessel during their standoff over an apprehended fishing boat in waters near Batanes last week, a security official said Wednesday.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, revealed the incident as the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) confirmed the standoff.

“There came a point na ang sabi nila (Taiwan Coast Guard), ‘Stop, or we will shoot you. Release the boat,'” said the official, who asked not to be named because of the issue’s sensitivity.

That incident occurred inside the “contiguous zone” of the Philippines, the official said.

Earlier Wednesday, PCG spokesman Commander Armand Balilo confirmed the standoff, saying it occurred 18 nautical miles northeast of Batanes last May 25.

MCS vessels of BFAR. (photo from the Philippines' Official Gazette website)

MCS vessels of BFAR. (photo from the Philippines’ Official Gazette website)

It involved PCG members on a Monitoring, Control, and Surveillance (MCS) vessel of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources’ (BFAR) and the Taiwan Coast Guard cutter number 118, he said.

The standoff began when Coast Guard personnel apprehended the Taiwanese fishing boat Min Jiang Tsai 6 around 6:25 p.m., Balilo said.

“The PCG was towing the fishing boat when Taiwan Coast Guard cutter 118 appeared and blocked the BFAR vessel and asked for the release of the fishing boat,” Balilo said.

Members of the PCG later released the fishing boat as per instruction by BFAR officers, after “four hours of negotiation” with the Taiwan Coast Guard cutter’s crew, he said.

The source, for his part, said things did not go as smoothly because Taiwan’s Coast Guard made several aggressive attempts to have the fishing boat released.

The cutter, according to the official, launched two speedboats in an apparent attempt to board the fishing boat and wrest it from Filipino law enforcers.

A BFAR MCS vessel docks side by side with a Navy patrol boat in Sta. Ana, Cagayan, one of the staging points of patrols to Batanes (May 2014 photo)

A BFAR MCS vessel docks side by side with a Navy patrol boat in Sta. Ana, Cagayan, one of the staging points of patrols to Batanes (May 2014 photo)

Taiwan’s ship also suddenly “cut” the path of the BFAR MCS-3004 vessel, risking a collision, he said.

A collision would have proven dangerous for the MCS-3004, which is only about 30 meters long as compared to the 63.5-meter Taiwanese cutter, according to the source.

That prompted the MCS-3004 to maneuver away and it went on sailing with the fishing boat in tow, until the cutter made the threat to shoot, the source said.

Only two Philippine Coast Guard members on the vessel had firearms at the time while the cutter, because of its size, is believed to be packing heavy weapons.

“They were outnumbered, outgunned, overpowered… Considering their predicament, ni-release na lang ‘yung fishing boat instead na may mapahamak,” the official said.

The source, meanwhile, revealed that a second incident involving another Taiwan Coast Guard ship occurred on May 28.

This occurred some 12 nautical miles from Batanes’ northernmost Amianan Island which is well within Philippine territory, he said.

The Taiwan Coast Guard ship appeared after PCG personnel drove away another Taiwanese fishing vessel, the source said.

Jovita Ayson, director of BFAR Region 2, said her office is now preparing reports on the incidents and will submit these to BFAR administrator Asis Perez.

Perez, in a text message, said he is out of the country and is still waiting for the reports.

Members of the Philippine Coast Guard and BFAR will continue patrolling waters off Batanes despite the incidents to “deter” foreign poachers, Ayson said. (John Roson)

– end –

Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island. 2008 photo by author.

Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island. 2008 photo by author.

Residents in Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island have started promoting the island as a tourist destination amid tension among countries claiming the Kalayaan (Spratly) Island Group in the West Philippine Sea.

Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez, chief of the Armed Forces’ Western Command, confirmed that the tourism campaign has started albeit at a small scale, and said the military stands ready to help.

“We can help organize tour packages,” Lopez told reporters in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan.

Lopez made the remark after visiting Pag-Asa Island with Armed Forces chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang, other military officials, and reporters last Monday.

During the visit, reporters saw some residents of Pag-Asa — where only fish was peddled before — selling souvenir shirts promoting the island as a tourist spot.

White shirts printed with beaches, starfishes, aerial pictures of Pag-Asa, and other Philippine-occupied territories in the Spratlys are being sold at the Kalayaan municipal hall for P280.

One resident also makes “tuba” (coconut wine) and offers this for P75 a liter to visitors.

Such merchandise were not seen on the island before, until China boosted its presence in the West Philippine Sea.

Reclamation and construction on China-held Subi Reef as seen from Pag-Asa. Photo by author.

Reclamation and construction on China-held Subi Reef as seen from Pag-Asa. 2015 photo by author.

Chinese warships and Coast Guard vessels are frequently seen in the disputed waters while construction and reclamation works are ongoing in China-held features including Subi (Zamora) Reef, which is only about 25 kilometers from Pag-Asa.

Residents said they have also been seeing Vietnamese fishing vessels straying near Pag-Asa — particularly at a reef to the island’s east and a sandbar to the north — and carry out dynamite fishing.

Lopez said the military cannot “actually escort” tourists to Pag-Asa because that’s not in its mandate, though helping arrange tours is allowable.

In his visit, Catapang said the military will “reinforce” tourism efforts, though securing visitors would be a joint effort with Coast Guard and local government agencies because Pag-Asa is in “internal waters.”

Tours could be extended to the other Philippine-occupied islands Patag (Flat), Kota (Loaita), Panata (Lankiam), Lawak (Nanshan), Likas (West York), and even Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, he added.

Kalayaan Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon said the tourism campaign will go full scale “next year” after the town buys a 25-meter steel-hulled boat for P10 million.

The Pag-Asa airstrip's western edge. 2015 photo by author.

The Pag-Asa airstrip’s western edge. 2015 photo by author.

The boat project, which is aimed at ferrying visitors from a jump-off station from mainland Palawan, comes while the government has yet to repair the airstrip on Pag-Asa.

A chunk of the 1.3-kilometer airstrip’s western edge has eroded into the sea, though small aircraft and military planes can still land.

A “pasalubong” (souvenir) shop and lodge will also be opened on Pag-Asa to cater to tourists, Bito-onon said. (John Roson)

– end –

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin on Friday directed military pilots to continue patrols over the West Philippine Sea despite China’s challenging of Philippine planes.

Gazmin gave the order after expressing concern that China appears to be already practicing an “air defense identification zone,” or ADIZ, over the disputed waters.

“Ito ay cause for concern sapagkat parang pina-practice ng China na mayroon nang ADIZ although wala pang formal declaration,” Gazmin said during a briefing of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council.

“Ang directive natin ay continue ‘yung kanilang (pilots) normal na trabaho, hindi dapat natatakot sa mga babalang ganito,” he added.

The defense chief’s remarks came after Armed Forces Western Command chief Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez told a Senate hearing Thursday that China warned Air Force and Navy planes at least six times to leave areas around the West Philippine Sea.

“They are acting as if they already have an ADIZ in the area,” defense department spokesman Peter Paul Galvez said Thursday night.

China first declared an ADIZ over the East China Sea in November 2013, covering a group of islets occupied by Japan.

It demanded that all countries with aircraft passing through the zone submit flight plans, or otherwise face “defensive measures.”

The move caused a stir not only in Japan but also in the Philippines, whose exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the west covers some islands and reefs being claimed by China.

Officials expressed concern that China might next declare an ADIZ over the West Philippine Sea, including territories which the Philippines has been occupying for decades.

China’s challenging of Philippine military planes, done via radio, were reported after Manila released aerial photos showing Beijing’s reclamation and construction works on some reefs in the disputed waters.

Last March 30, Armed Forces chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang said China has stepped up construction and reclamation on at least seven reefs, including three that are inside the Philippines’ EEZ.

Gazmin said the DND has already reported its observations to the proper agency and will continue to monitor China’s activities. (John Roson)

– end –

Mount Tumantangis as seen from Jolo, Sulu (AFP JTG-Sulu photo)

Mount Tumantangis as seen from Jolo and Patikul, Sulu (AFP JTG-Sulu photo)

Fancy a trek to one of the Abu Sayyaf’s mountain playgrounds in Sulu? That’s in the pipeline.

Officials from different government agencies, backed by the military of course, are set to climb Bud Tumantangis, or Mount Tumantangis, on Saturday and Sunday with the aim of raising awareness for its conservation and, hopefully, promoting it as a tourist attraction.

Among those who will trek up are representatives of the Department of Tourism, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Department of Education, Department of Social Welfare and Development, and the Sulu provincial government, said Colonel Alan Arrojado, commander of the Armed Forces’ Joint Task Group Sulu.

Two Army and Marines battalions were earlier deployed around the mountain to ensure security, he said.

Tumantangis, which straddles the towns of Indanan and Patikul, is the highest peak in the Sulu archipelago at 2,661 feet (811.0728 meters).

The peak offers a view of the entire Sulu archipelago, neighboring Basilan, and sometimes, even the Zamboanga Peninsula.

“It’s the first thing you’ll see when coming to the province by sea, and the last thing when you leave… Maganda ang sunrise at sunset. ‘Pag clear ang sky, hanggang Zamboanga makikita mo,” Arrojado said.

Tumantangis also holds historical significance as the tomb-monument of Sharif ul-Hashim Abu Bakar — the first to hold the title of “sultan” in Sulu — is on the mountain.

People interested in wildlife can also find monkeys, locally called “mamak,” at Tumantangis.

This weekend’s trek will see government officials identify areas where trails, steps, and even “base camps” can be placed for future climbers to use, Arrojado said.

“Initiative ko ito, initiative namin, kasi kung nagagawa sa ibang bundok, sa Mount Apo (in Davao), sa Bongao peak (in Tawi-Tawi), sa Mount Pulag (in Northern Luzon), why not in Sulu? ‘Yun ang approach namin ngayon dito,” he said.

The tourism projects, however, are still being planned as, unlike frequently-climbed mountains in the country, Tumantangis has one stinging problem — the Abu Sayyaf.

Members of the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf, blamed for kidnappings, killings, and bombings, are known to roam around the mountain’s foothills.

“Hindi katulad ng Mount Apo na madalas akyatin, itong Tumantangis kahit ‘yung mga taga-dito mismo sa Jolo, hindi pa nila ito naaakyat. Wala pang nakakaakyat maliban siguro sa Abu Sayyaf,” Arrojado said.

Armed elements of the Moro National Liberation Front loyal to founding chairman Nur Misuari also have encampments at the slopes, particularly in Brgy. Kadday Langpas, Indanan.

Currently, the Abu Sayyaf still holds several captives, including Ewold Horn of the Netherlands — a birdwatcher snatched in the neighboring province of Tawi-Tawi in February 2012.

While the military says that Abu Sayyaf members were last seen at Tumantangis in 2007, the last reported instance of captives being held there was in 2008, when the bandits allegedly brought ABS-CBN television reporter Ces Drilon, two of her crew, and their professor guide to the mountain.

Tumantangis, which literally means “weeping,” did not get its name from the ordeal that Abu Sayyaf captives suffered while being held there.

“Lagi kasing may tubig na bumababa sa bundok kaya para siyang umiiyak. In fact, ito ang source ng tubig sa entire Sulu Island. At ito ‘yung isa sa mga dahilan kaya bakit kailangan magkaroon ng awareness at maprotektahan ‘yung virgin forests dito,” Arrojado said.

To help achieve that, the climb will also include a tree-planting activity, he said.

Arrojado said teams of soldiers are now conducting clearing operations on Tumantangis every now and then not only to ensure the security of this weekend’s climb, but also future treks.

Once tourists come to Tumantangis, residents are expected to earn money through services that cater to needs of trekkers and backpackers, he said.

It is hoped that by then, Sulu will finally be rid of the tag of being “one of the most dangerous places on earth,” Arrojado said. (John Roson)

– end –

An alleged student of slain Malaysian bomb expert Marwan who is himself wanted for carrying out bombings, was arrested in Panaon, Misamis Occidental, Saturday afternoon, a police official said.

Arrested was Abdul Malik Sali, a member of the Al Khobar group, Northern Mindanao regional police director Chief Superintendent Agrimero Cruz said.

Elements of the Panaon Police and the PNP’s anti-terror Special Project: Mindanao Khilafah Islamiyah arrested Sali at a checkpoint along the National Highway around 5:30 p.m., Cruz said in a text message.

Operatives carried out the arrest on warrants for multiple murder with frustrated murder and multiple attempted murder, he said.

Sali is believed to be behind two bombing incidents in Kidapawan City, North Cotabato, and Digos City, Davao del Sur, where several lives were lost, Cruz said.

He is a “member of the Al Khobar terrorist group under the umbrella of the group of Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan,” the police official said.

Sali’s arrest came almost two months after Marwan, a suspect in the deadly 2002 bombings in Bali, Indonesia, was killed in a raid by the PNP Special Action Force in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, last January 25.

The raid, however, also cost the lives of 44 SAF members as armed Moro groups ganged up on the police commandos.

In 2008, the Department of Interior and Local Government announced a P400,000 reward for anyone who can help authorities capture Sali, one of the suspects in the bombing of a Metro Shuttle Bus in September 1 that year.

The incident killed at least five people and injured 30 others.

Same bounties were offered for Sali’s fellow bombing suspects Mahir Abu Bakr and Jonaria Mindiba.

Al Khobar is a group of extortionists based in the marshlands of Maguindanao and are responsible for the spate of bombings in Central Mindanao since 2006, according to a statement issued by the PNP in 2013.

The group was allegedly created to support the Southeast Asian terror network Jemaah Islamiyah and other foreign militant jihadist groups.

It was intended to serve as a special unit concentrating on using explosives and carrying out extortion schemes across Cotabato, until it transformed into a kidnap-for-ransom gang and, much later, into an extortion group, according to the police statement. (John Roson)

– end –

The military has deployed additional troops to Maguindanao amid continuing operations against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

Members of the Samar-based 34th Infantry Battalion arrived in Camp Siongco, Datu Odin Sinsuat, Saturday, said Captain Jo-Ann Petinglay, public affairs officer of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division.

“The deployment marks the start of the ‘holding phase,’ where government forces will establish encampments in former lairs of the BIFF to prevent the armed lawless group from going back,” Petinglay said.

The battalion will also augment the 6th ID’s efforts in maintaining peace and security in Maguindanao, as well as parts of North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, and Lanao del Sur, she said.

Rebel casualties rise

Meanwhile, Armed Forces public affairs chief Lieutenant Colonel Harold Cabunoc said the number of BIFF members killed in military operations since February has reached 139.

Fifty-three members of the rebel group have been wounded and 12 more were apprehended, he said.

Cabunoc said the number of slain rebels rose from the last week’s count of 117, not because there were new clashes, but because of the military’s validation of intelligence reports.

“‘Yung ibang wounded namatay na, at saka mayroong iba na hindi listed as patay or wounded, pero patay pala. ‘Yung iba naman body parts lang, na-artillery, di agad nakilala,” he said.

Operation: Graduation

Cabunoc said operations against the BIFF members will continue even as soldiers are set to conduct peace and development activities in areas where clashes had occurred.

“Security forces will continue to conduct focused military operations against the armed threats like the BIFF and the terrorists that they have coddled,” he said.

Armed Forces chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang said the hunt for the remaining BIFF members and bomb maker Abdul Basit Usman will be continued until June.

Local authorities in Maguindanao, however, expressed concern over the operations’ effects, especially on students, and even called for a halt to allow graduation exercises this month.

Cabunoc said Catapang ordered the 6th ID to “facilitate” graduation exercises, by helping government and school authorities identify areas where such events can be held.

“They will jointly identify specific places, ‘yung clear na of the armed group,” he said.

Cabunoc said ongoing operations will not affect graduation ceremonies, as BIFF members have already splintered into small groups that roam in the marshlands of Maguindanao.

“Itong BIFF nag-splinter na into small groups, nasa marshlands na ang mga ito, wala nang schools doon,” he said. (John Roson)

– end –

Alleged members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have reportedly been promising to give lands to tribal folk once the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is passed, a military official said Friday.

Armed Forces public affairs chief Lieutenant Colonel Harold Cabunoc said the military learned of the offer through tribal leaders who had protested the MILF’s “new” camp in Brgy. Rogongon, Iligan City.

Alleged members of MILF 103rd Border Command’s 305th Guerilla Unit recruited Higaonon and Maranao tribesmen to train at the camp, then asked them for an P800 “membership fee,” Cabunoc told reporters.

“At in return diumano ay bibigyan sila ng five hectares of land once na maipasa na ‘yung BBL at ma-establish ang Bangsamoro,” he said.

A total of 85 Higaonon and Maranao tribesmen were recruited at the camp in May 2014 then 90 more were recruited last January, Cabunoc said.

Cabunoc said the offer is an “issue,” considering that tribal folk, particularly the Higaonons, own ancestral lands around the camp.

“Issue talaga ‘yun dahil yung ancestral domain ay para ‘yun sa Higaonon tribe mismo at sila ang talagang kinikilala na may karapatan sa naturang lupa, tapos may biglang magpapakilala na sila ang magbibigay ng lupa na ‘yun para sa mga nagpa-affiliate o nagpa-train. Magkakaproblema ang komunidad,” he said.

Cabunoc made the remarks after confirming that the military endorsed protests by Higaonon tribal leaders against the “new” camp in Brgy. Rogonon.

Colonel Gilbert Gapay, commander of the Army’s 2nd Mechanized Infantry Brigade, had recommended that the camp be dismantled because of the tribal leaders’ protests and because it was built while the ceasefire between the government and MILF is in effect.

Cabunoc said the issue about the camp is a “challenge” to the MILF sincerity in upholding provisions of the 18-year-old ceasefire.

“Challenge ito sa kanila… Alamin nila kung sino ‘yung mga tao na ‘yun, kung talagang tao ba nila na member talaga ng Moro Islamic Liberation Front or nagpapagangap lang na member ng MILF para magkapera,” he said.

“‘Yung pag-recruit at saka pag-training at saka pag-expand ng area, bawal po ‘yun ayon sa usapang pangkapayapaan na pirmado ng government at saka MILF,” Cabunoc noted. (John Roson)

– end –

Authorities arrested the leader of the so-called “Martilyo Gang” during an operation in Ozamis City Friday morning, police said.

Glenn Tayrus was arrested at a popular fastfood chain’s branch along Don Bernad ave. around 9 a.m., Northern Mindanao regional police director Chief Supt. Agrimero Cruz said.

Elements of the Cagayan de Oro City Police, Regional Public Safety Battalion, Regional Special Operations Group, and 10th Regional Criminal Investigation and Detection Unit carried out the arrest on a warrant for robbery with violence against persons, Cruz said.

Tayrus is one of the principal suspects in robbing a branch of the Development Bank of the Philippines and a pawnshop in Cagayan de Oro in November 2013 and December 2014, respectively, he said.

Tayrus is tagged as the National Police’s most wanted person among crime groups, being the leader of the Martilyo Gang that operates nationwide, Cruz said, citing records of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group.

The gang, whose members use hammers in staging holdups, has been blamed for two heists inside the SM Megamall in Mandaluyong City in January and December 2013.

It can be recalled that those incidents had prompted the National Capital Region Police to ask mall managements to control, if not prohibit, the sale of hammers inside their premises. (John Roson)

– end –

An aide of Abu Sayyaf top leader Radullan Sahiron was shot dead in Patikul, Sulu, not by government forces but by fellow members of the bandit group, the military reported.

Killed was one Nadzmil Ali, a “trusted” man of Sahiron, Armed Forces public affairs chief Lieutenant Colonel Harold Cabunoc said Wednesday.

A Sulu-based military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Ali, whose real name is Khalid Sali, was shot dead in Brgy. Buhanginan around 4 p.m. Monday.

Sali, an Abu Sayyaf sub-commander who served as Sahiron’s “right-hand man,” was bathing at a stream when he was shot, the official said.

Sali was shot with his own gun by a nephew, who fellow Abu Sayyaf sub-commanders Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan and Furuji Indama had “agitated,” the source said.

“Pinaghihinalaan kasi nila Sawadjaan itong si Sali na informant ng military, na kung bakit tuwing magkakasama sila ay nae-engage sila ng tropa. Parang purging ang nangyari,” said the source.

A Manila-based military official monitoring developments in Sulu said Sali was a former member of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) who got integrated into the AFP.

Sali eventually earned the rank of captain in the military, but went AWOL sometime in 2008 then joined the Abu Sayyaf, the official said.

The Sulu-based official said security forces did not see Sali’s body as it was buried in Patikul on Tuesday.

“We are validating this report regarding the killing of Nadzmil Ali, and we are also verifying the report that he was indeed the former Army captain, Khalid Sali, who went AWOL seven years ago,” Cabunoc said.

‘Infighting’

Captain Maria Rowena Muyuela, AFP Western Mindanao Command spokesperson, said her office has also yet to receive an official report on Sali’s killing, but admitted hearing of the supposed dissention among Abu Sayyaf sub-commanders.

“Medyo may doubt na sila sa isa’t isa. Hinihintay ko pa ang official report diyan,” she said.

The Sulu-based official revealed that Sali’s killing prompted Sawadjaan and Indama to “split” from Sahiron’s group for fear of retaliation from the Abu Sayyaf top leader.

“Ngayon umalis na sila Sawadjaan, humiwalay kasama si Furuji, alam kasi nilang babawi si Radullan. Nasa Patikul pa rin sila pero ibang area na,” the official said.

“May infighting na sa kanila. Nag-move na sila Sawadjaan at Furuji na palitan si Sahiron, ang gusto nilang ipalit si Yasser Igasan,” the source added.

Sahiron, who is said to have taken over the helm of the Abu Sayyaf after Khadaffy Janjalani was killed in 2006, is included in the U.S.’ list of most wanted terrorists, with the State Department offering up to US$ 1 million for his capture.

Igasan is also a prominent Abu Sayyaf commander who, according to intelligence reports, should have succeeded Janjalani but was not acknowledged by Sahiron because he is more of a cleric and has relatively lower skills in combat. (John Roson)

– end –

Three Malaysian operatives of the Southeast Asian terror network Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) were reportedly spotted among Abu Sayyaf members as government troops figured in another clash with the bandit group in Patikul, Sulu, Thursday.

The military revealed the information as it announced that 14 Abu Sayyaf members have been confirmed killed and 19 more were injured in previous clashes in Patikul on Wednesday.

“There is an information” on the three Malaysian JI operatives’ presence, Captain Maria Rowena Muyuela, spokesperson of the Armed Forces’ Western Mindanao Command, said by phone.

Elements of the 14th Scout Ranger Company clashed with the group of Abu Sayyaf sub-commander Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan “with the three JI Malaysian nationals” in Sitio Kanjimaw, Brgy. Tugas, 9:15 a.m., according a a report from the AFP Joint Task Group (JTG) Sulu.

“Civilian tipsters revealed that the three Malaysian members of the Jemaah Islamiyah were coddled by the group of Sawadjaan,” AFP public affairs office chief Lieutenant Colonel Harold Cabunoc said in a statement.

Captain Antonio Bulao, JTG Sulu public affairs officer, said the firefight with the Abu Sayyaf men and their JI cohorts lasted for almost 15 minutes.

No soldier was injured in the fighting, while the Abu Sayyaf is believed to have suffered “casualties” because blood trails were seen along the bandits’ route of withdrawal to Sitio Gabang, Brgy. Bakong, Bulao said.

Troops of the 35th Infantry Battalion later discovered an encampment that can accommodate at least 50 persons, Cabunoc said.

16 dead, 35 hurt

The fresh clash occurred after troops battled about 300 Abu Sayyaf members led by Sawadjaan in Brgy. Tanum, also in Patikul, on Wednesday.

Two skirmishes occurred in Tanum, leaving a total of 16 combatants dead and 35 others wounded from both the government and Abu Sayyaf.

Fourteen Abu Sayyaf men were killed while 19 other bandits were hurt in Wednesday’s clashes, Muyuela said.

Some of the slain bandits were identified as Berhamin Jawhari, Musar Sawadjaan, Jani Madjid, Adzmar Muhammad, Ompoy Uran, and Mussal Jawhari, according to a report from JTG Sulu.

Eight other slain bandits have yet to be identified, but they were traced to have come from Luuk, Patikul, and Indanan, according to the report.

Bandit commander hurt

Soldiers are also checking information that Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan was injured in Wednesday’s clashes, Muyuela said.

“‘Yun po talaga ang report na nakarating sa amin, injured siya (Sawadjaan), kaya parang di masyadong makagalaw itong Abu Sayyaf from their position sa Patikul,” a military official based in Sulu said.

Sawadjaan, said to be almost “equal” in stature with Abu Sayyaf top leader Radullan Sahiron, is implicated in several incidents of kindapping incidents in Sulu.

“Nakita din ‘yung grupo ni Furuji Indama, na sa Basilan talaga nakabase, na kasama nila,” the Sulu-based official said on condition of anonymity.

Wednesday’s clashes also resulted in the death of two soldiers and wounding of 16 other troopers.

Killed were Cpl. Lonell Bautista, of Cavite; and Pfc. Ervin Roquero, of Negros Occidental, Cabunoc said, citing information from JTG Sulu.

Among 16 wounded are 1Lt. Ramsel Dugan and 2Lt. Bernard Mabazza. Most of the wounded were hit by shrapnel from 40mm grenade launchers, he said.

U.S. choppers to the rescue, again

The wounded soldiers were brought from the clash site to the Kuta Heneral Teodulfo Bautista Hospital in Jolo via military helicopters, according to JTG Sulu.

They were later transferred to Zamboanga City via choppers of the U.S. military’s defense contractor, Evergreen, the task group reported.

Evergreen helicopters were also seen helping transport some of the PNP Special Action Force (SAF) members who were injured in the deadly clash in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, last January 25.

“Okay lang ‘yun, what is wrong with an ally helping another?” AFP spokesman Colonel Restituto Padilla told reporters when asked if the U.S. assistance was legal.

“They (U.S.) are not directly involved in the operation because that will be violative of the Constitution… They share information and they assist in casualty evacuations,” Padilla added. (John Roson)

– end –

About 2,000 residents of Datu Montawal, Maguindanao, have also fled their homes for fear of getting caught in the middle of fighting between members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the breakaway Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), authorities said Wednesday.

This, as the ARMM Humanitarian Emergency Action and Response Team (ARMM-HEART) reported more evacuees and several houses were burned in Pagalungan because of the fighting.

A total of 468 families, or roughly 2,300 people, living in Brgy. Talitay, Datu Montawal, have been displaced as of Tuesday afternoon, Jo Henry, information officer at the ARMM-HEART, said by phone.

“Nag-escalate sa kabilang munisipyo… ‘Yung mga naglalaban, parang doon tumakbo, doon naghabulan sa Montawal,” she said.

Datu Montawal is adjacent to Pagalungan — where the clashes occur — as well as Pikit of North Cotabato.

Of the displaced families in Datu Montawal, 416 are now taking shelter in Sitio Pidtulangian, also in Brgy. Talitay, while 52 crossed to Pikit and Kabacan, where they have relatives, Henry said.

Captain Jo-Ann Petinglay, public affairs officer of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, said the last monitored fighting between MILF and BIFF forces occurred around 12 noon Tuesday in Pagalungan.

The military has not recieved reports of fighting in Datu Montawal, Petinglay said by phone.

Houses burn in ‘no man’s land’

Henry said the fighting in Pagalungan has left at least five houses burned while two barangays are considered as “no man’s land.”

“Ang report sa amin ngayon may limang bahay na ang nasunog sa Sitio Balungis, Brgy. Kalbugan, kung saan nangyari ‘yung bakbakan. ‘Yung bakbakan nagsimula sa Sitio Tatak, also in Kalbugan,” she said.

Members of the ARMM-HEART went to Pagalungan Wednesday to bring relief goods and check on the situation, but were only able visit evacuation centers in the town proper.

“Hindi kami makapasok doon sa looban, doon sa Kalbugan, nasa interior kasi ‘yun, malayo dito sa mga evacuation center… ‘yung Kalbugan saka Buliok dineclare na ‘no man’s land’ ‘nung mga nag-aaway. Wala nang tao ngayon doon,” Henry said.

20,000 flee in Pikit, Pagalungan

Henry said 1,502 families comprised of 9,742 individuals have been displaced in Pagalungan alone.

“Nanawagan ‘yung local government ng Pagalungan ng tulong kasi talagang hirap ang mga tao sa evacuation center. Marami naman nang tumulong, DSWD, UNHCR, at mga non-government organizations pero kailangan kasi masustain,” she said.

Aside from food and water, evacuees are currently in need of tarpaulins that they can use as tents or sleeping mats, Henry said.

The Pagalungan municipal gymnasium, which currently being used as an evacuation center, is already filled up so some evacuees are staying outside with no roof on their heads, she said.

In Pikit, meanwhile, a total of 1,982 families comprised of 10,664 persons have been displaced, Office of Civil Defense-12 director Minda Morante said.

The displaced persons are residents of Brgy. Kabasalan, Raja Muda, Barungis, Buliok, Bulol, and Bagoinged, Morante said in an emailed report. (John Roson)

– end –

More than 8,000 people in North Cotabato and Maguindanao have fled their homes as clashes between members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the breakaway Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) continued, authorities said Monday.

“The situation is escalating” as there are already evacuations in six barangays of Pikit and these are “continuing,” Cynthia Ortega, head of the North Cotabato Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (PDRRMC) said by phone.

As of 2 p.m. Monday, a total of 1,702 families or more than 8,000 people were monitored to have evacuated in Brgys. Barungis, Bagoinged, Buliok, Rajah Muda, Bulol, and Kabasalan, Ortega said.

“‘Di lang sila makabigay ng update doon kasi sige ang evacuation… We can say nag-escalate na ‘yung situation kasi marami nang barangays ang affected,” she said.

About 500 families also evacuated in neighboring Pagalungan, Maguindanao, where the clashes are occurring, according to initial reports recieved by the Office of Civil Defense-Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

Senior Superintendent Danilo Peralta, North Cotabato provincial police director, said clashes between the MILF and BIFF are “continuing” in Pagalungan and have forced many residents there to evacuate to Pikit.

“Marami sa mga ito ay taga-Pagalungan, tumawid sila dito para makaiwas dun sa bakbakan ng MILF at BIFF doon sa kanila,” Peralta said when contacted by phone during his visit to an evacuation center.

Sounds of the ongoing clashes can sometimes be heard in Pikit, which is just adjacent to Pagalungan, he said.

“Minsan, ‘pag tahimik, nadidinig namin dito ‘yung mga mortar (explosion), mangilan-ngilan,” Peralta said.

The official, however, noted that policemen and soldiers do not interfere in the fighting because it is “internal” to the MILF and BIFF.

Peralta, meanwhile, said authorities in Pikit find no problem in hosting evacuees from Pagalungan and are even handing them relief goods.

“Welcome naman dito ‘yung mga taga-Maguindanao kasi ‘yang Maguindanao dati ring Cotabato ‘yan, nahati lang, so kahit taga-doon ang evacuees, kahit Bangsamoro sila at may Christians kami dito, welcome sila at binibigyan ng pagkain dito,” Peralta said. (John Roson)

– end –

Five New People’s Army (NPA) members were killed while sevaral high-powered firearms were seized as government troops clashed with the rebel group in Alabel, Sarangani, on Monday, the military said.

The slain rebels’ bodies were recovered but their identities have yet to be determined, 1Lt. Vergel Lacambra, public affairs officer of the Army’s 10th Infantry Division, said by phone.

The clash in Sitio Tugal, Brgy. Datal Anggas, erupted around 8 a.m.

Elements of the 73rd Infantry Battalion encountered about 30 rebels led by alias “Lucas,” secretary of the NPA Far-South Mindanao Regional Committee’s Front 75, Lacambra said.

Two MG-520 attack helicopters from the Air Force provided close-air support to the ground troops, he said.

No one was hurt among the government troops, who also recovered two AK-47 rifles, an M653 Baby Armalite rifle, and three M16 rifles from the rebels, Lacambra said. (John Roson)

– end –

Four soldiers and a New People’s Army (NPA) member were killed while five other security personnel were injured as the rebel group attacked the police station in Mati City, Davao Oriental, Sunday night, authorities said Monday.

Killed were Pfc. Daniel Damansila Jr., Pvt. Ryan Amigo, Pfc. Wil Christian Resuelo, Sgt. Adel Lucanan, and a still unidentified NPA member, said Colonel Romeo Brawner, spokesman of the Armed Forces’ Eastern Mindanao Command.

Injured were one policeman, Pfc. Virgil Logronio, Pfc. Emerito Castillo, Pfc. Ian Mark Babiera, and Pfc. Zaldy Canonero, Brawner said.

About 50 rebels carried out the attack around 7:30 p.m., he said.

Some of them, who were on an Elf truck, two vans, and five motorcycles, arrived at the police station and fired on it so policemen fought it out with them, Brawner said.

Members of the Davao Oriental provincial police reinforced the police station upon learning the incident, Southern Mindanao regional police spokesman Superintendent Antonio Rivera said.

Troops of the Army’s 701st Brigade on armored personnel carriers also reinforced the policemen and engaged the rebels in a running gun battle, Brawner said.

A policeman was wounded while an NPA member was killed during the clash in Brgy. Poblacion, he said.

Elements of the 104th Division Reconnaissance Company were also sent to join the pursuit, but were landmined around 8 p.m.

Members of that unit were on the way to the clash site when a landmine explosion hit the truck were riding in Sitio Magay, Brgy. Don Martin Marundan, only 300 maters away from the 701st Brigade headquarters, Brawner said.

Two landmines exploded near the brigade headquarters, Rivera said.

Damansila and Amigo died on the spot. Resuelo was initially wounded along with Logronio, Castillo, Babiera, and Canonero, but he expired in the hospital later, Brawner said.

Lucanan, on the other hand, died after being shot at a rebel checkpoint near the Saint Camillus Hospital in Brgy. Matiao.

Lucanan was unarmed and in civilian clothes at the time, but he introduced himself as soldier because the men at the roadblock were in PNP uniforms, Brawner said.

Lieutenant General Aurelio Baladad, commander of the Eastern Mindanao Command, condemned the organized attack, particularly the use of landmines.

He said the attack was meant to embarrass the government since Davao Oriental was already declared “insurgency free” in 2013.

“They (NPA) gathered rebels from other provinces to attack and disrupt the already peaceful lives of the people of Davao Oriental,” Baladad said.

Major General Eduardo Año, commander of the Army’s 10th Infantry Division, called the attack a “desperate move” by the NPA amid developmental programs of Davao Oriental.

“We condemn this attack, which was notably carried out in a populated community… Davao Oriental remains a development-ready province. We will keep it that way,” he added. (John Roson)

– end –

Authorities are trying to locate a businesswoman abducted by armed men in Jolo, Sulu, on Sunday, the military reported.

Abducted was 58-year-old Dingkim Yap, Armed Forces Western Mindanao Command spokesperson Capt. Maria Rowena Muyuela said, citing a report from the Joint Task Group Sulu.

The incident occurred around 12:30 p.m. in Brgy. Chinese Pier.

About six armed men forced Yap into a blue Tamaraw FX then sped away, according to the report.

Yap, who is engaged in textile trade, is said to have come from her store when she was abducted, a military official based in Sulu said.

Local authorities are now following leads that could help determine the abductors’ identities and motive, the official said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak. (John Roson)

– end –

Two Abu Sayyaf members were killed while at least 10 other people, including civilians, were injured when government troops clashed with the bandit group in Al Barka, Basilan, on Sunday, the military said.

Two bandits were killed and at least two others were wounded, said Capt. Maria Rowena Muyuela, spokesperson of the Armed Forces’ Western Mindanao Command.

Initial reports from the Joint Task Group Basilan indicate that three soldiers suffered slight injuries, Muyuela said.

Five civilians, including two young children, were wounded after being shot at by Abu Sayyaf members during the clash, said 1Lt. Sally Christine Magno, civil-military operations officer of the Army’s 104th Brigade.

They were identified as Jumiran Misa, 52; Radisa Misa, 18; Sanima Husien, 29; Asma Husien, 2; and Sarfe Misa, 5; all residents of Sitio Peggesan, Brgy. Guinanta.

Elements of the Joint Task Group Basilan encountered Abu Sayyaf members led by Basir Kasaran in Brgy. Kuhon around 5:45 a.m.

As the fighting went on, bandits also shot at civilians near the encounter site around 11:35 a.m., so soldiers conducted rescue operations, Magno said.

After rescuing the civilians, soldiers brought them to a hospital in Lamitan City for first aid then transferred them to another facility in Isabela City, she said.

Sporadic firefights, meanwhile, went on until 1 p.m., Magno said.

The clash is a result of efforts of the multi-agency Task Force Kasanyangan, which aims to address the prevailing insurgency problem and revive governance in Al Barka, a known Abu Sayyaf stronghold, she said. (John Roson)

– end –

Army and Marines artillery personnel are undergoing training in Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija, to enhance skills in firing cannons amid controversies in providing fire support to ground troops, particularly in Mindanao.

The training for “fire direction center” (FDC) specialists was opened recently at the Artillery Training School and will run for four weeks, Army Artillery Regiment spokesperson Major Rosa Ma. Cristina Manuel said.

Ten personnel from Field Artillery Battalions based in different parts of the country and six from the Marines assigned in Sultan Kudarat are taking part, Manuel said in an emailed statement.

They were sent by their respective unit commanders to “further enhance” their competencies as FDC specialists, she said.

The retraining came in the wake of the January 25 clash in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, where 44 members of the National Police’s elite Special Action Force (SAF) were killed.

That clash became an issue for the military after it was learned that artillery units under the Army’s 6th Infantry Division failed to provide immediate fire support to SAF members who were pinned down by Muslim rebels.

The retraining also comes almost a year after six members of the Armed Forces’ elite Joint Special Operations Group hunting down Abu Sayyaf bandits were killed in Patikul, Sulu, on June 19, 2014 due to “friendly fire” from the Marines’ artillery units.

Last January 27, some of the Marines who served in Sulu were sent back to their mother unit which covers, among others, Sultan Kudarat.

The debacle in Mamasapano is currently being discussed at the Senate, where military officials claimed that the SAF did not provide information on the beleaguered police commandos’ location so artillery units did not fire immediately.

Military officials also said the artillery units only fired white phosporous, not explosive ammunition, to determine the SAF members’ location.

The retraining aims to “review and equip more” the FDC specialists so they can “deliver the needed artillery fire support timely and accurately,” Manuel said.

During the retraining, participants will have a live-fire exercise to test their speed and accuracy in computing required data, she said.

“The survival of our endangered troops lies in our hands. However, any inaccurate, lacking or error in the data, as members of fire direction center, it is your responsibility to recommend to your battery commander not to deliver the requested fire for security reasons unless sooner corrected,” training director Lieutenant Maria Theresa Babiera said at the opening ceremony. (John Roson)

– end –

An Abu Sayyaf member was killed when the bandit group clashed with members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and government troops who provided reinforcement, in Sumisip, Basilan, on Saturday, the military said.

This developed after security forces expressed disappointment over the MILF’s involvement in a clash that resulted in the death of 44 members of the National Police’s Special Action Force (SAF) in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, on January 25.

Members of the MILF encountered about 50 Abu Sayyaf members in Brgy. Pamatsaken around 10 a.m., said 1Lt. Sally Christine Magno, civil-military operations officer of the Army’s 104th Brigade.

Upon learning the incident, the 64th Infantry Battalion sent three platoons of soldiers and armored vehicles “to reinforce the beleaguered MILF members,” Magno said.

The troops proceeded to the encounter site with Brgy. Central chairman Marjim Barillo and other MILF members, she said.

The Abu Sayyaf members, led by sub-commanders Radzmil Jannatul, Juhaibel Alamsirul, and Pasil Bayali, withdrew towards Brgy. Baiwas, apparently sensing the large strength of the reinforcing troops and MILF, Magno said.

Members of the 64th IB then transported MILF member Sahid Liberal alias “Balinting,” who was wounded in the clash, to his relatives and later to Basilan Community Hospital in Isabela City, she said.

Other soldiers and some MILF members, meanwhile, pursued the Abu Sayyaf and cleared encampments and a jungle base of the bandits between Pamatsaken and Baiwas.

“It was reported that one Abu Sayyaf bandit was killed during the encounter,” Magno said.

The killing of SAF troopers in Mamasapano, which came shortly after a raid where the police commandos killed Malaysian terror suspect Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan, raised questions on the MILF’s sincerity in the peace deal it signed with the government in March 2014.

National Police officer-in-charge Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina publicly criticized the involved Muslim rebels for the “overkill.”

The death of the SAF troopers also fueled talk of a rift between the PNP and Armed Forces which, some say, failed to reinforce the beleaguered policemen in their time of need.

Both the PNP and AFP have denied that such a rift exists, but only after military officials said the SAF failed to coordinate its mission and sacked SAF commander Director Getulio Napenas claimed otherwise.

President Benigno Aquino, in a televised speech on Friday, warned that it will be more dangerous for the country if the PNP and AFP were to clash.

The President, in what was seen by observers as a move to douse the “rift” issue between the PNP and AFP, vowed to pursue justice for the slain police commandos and warned that the combined strength of both agencies will be used to “run over” those who will again attack security forces who are performing their duty. (John Roson)

– end –