The Armed Forces admitted having “underestimated” the numbers and capability of the Abu Sayyaf during an operation in Patikul, Sulu, where seven Marine soldiers got killed, some of whom were mutilated.

“It’s just that we underestimated the positions and the number of the enemy,” Maj. Gen. Jose Mabanta, AFP deputy chief of staff for operations, said in a phone interview from Sulu.

He made the remark when asked on a television report saying that some villagers in Patikul “set up” the 11th Marine Battalion Landing Team (MBLT-11) hence the huge loss.

“I don’t think so, talagang we were able to come in, infiltrate successfully… no one tipped us off, when our personnel were discovered, they were already right within the immediate vicinity of their (Abu Sayyaf) camp,” Mabanta said.

Mabanta said he visited the headquarters of the Sulu Island Command under Brig. Romeo Tanalgo, on Saturday to “find out what happened” during Thursday’s encounter with the Abu Sayyaf.

What happened?

Military sources said on Thursday that the MBLT-11 platoon led by 2Lt. Michael Baladad (one of the fatalities) faced more or less 70 bandits under Isnilon Hapilon and Radullan Sahiron.

Hapilon and Sahiron are both considered by the military as ranking Abu Sayyaf leaders, with the latter presumed to have become the group’s top leader since Khadaffy Janjalani got killed in September 2006.

The Navy, which handles the Philippine Marine Corps, confirmed that two of the soldiers who died in the four-hour clash were beheaded and two suffered “severe” hack wounds. Twenty-six troopers were also injured.

Still a ‘strategic victory’

Despite the large number of fatalities and injured, Mabanta maintained that the AFP considers the incident a “strategic victory.”

“It was a strategic victory, we were able to dislodge them (Abu Sayyaf) from, I would say, a major camp,” he said, adding that the bandits are expected to launch “retaliatory attacks.”

“The retaliatory attacks usually come as guerrilla tactics like the usage of bombs and IEDs (improvised explosive devices), they may lay it against our troops or even the populace. These are possible retaliatory attacks that we have be have to be prepared for,” Mabanta said.

Undecided on Ramadan

Meanwhile, Mabanta said the AFP has yet to decide whether to continue pursuit operations against the Abu Sayyaf during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

“We still have to look into this and discuss it among ourselves, as of now, we are still weighing our options. But we will be sensitive to the recommendations of the various stakeholders, lalo ‘yung mga residents, mga Muslim sila eh,” he said.

Mabanta said he discussed the matter with the local community during his visit, which was originally aimed at discussing the Armed Forces’ peace and security plan, “Bayanihan.” (John Roson)

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