Government troops on Tuesday again carried out air strikes against a lair of “lawless elements” said to be hiding among Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) members in Zamboanga Sibugay while intensifying intelligence operations against bandits in Basilan.

“Continuous pa rin ‘yung law enforcement operation doon, at katulad ng sinabi ng ating presidente na we need ‘all out justice,’ we are just implementing that,” Maj. Gen. Noel Coballes, commander of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, said in a phone interview.

The Air Force’s OV-10 bomber planes carried out two sorties at Sitio Talaib, Brgy. Labatan, of Payao town where the group of Waning Abdusalam is said to be holed up.

The air strikes, which followed three that were carried out Monday, were stopped before noon. “(That is) for the meantime, for this day probably,” Coballes said.

4 bandits, 2 soldiers dead

Army spokesman Maj. Harold Cabunoc said ground troops have so far recovered only four slain bandits, but more are believed to be either killed or wounded.

“Wala namang fresh report ng casualty sa government side, sa enemy side lang ay nakita ‘yung apat bodies pero pinaniniwalaan na more than pa, ang dami daw dugo dun sa withdrawal routes… ang ginagawa nila (enemy) as much as possible ay kinukuha nila ‘yan dahil according to Islamic tradition, the body must be buried at least 24 hours after death,” Cabunoc told reporters.

The military, meanwhile, identified the two soldiers slain in Monday’s assault as Pfc. Dave Egco and Pfc. Pabilicio, both of the Army 15th Division Reconnaissance Company.

Wounded were Pfcs. Marlon Equilla, Fernando Ortiz, Ian Clyde Buenafe, at Raymond Segovia, Cabunoc said, adding no casualties were recorded on the government side on Tuesday.

Naval blockade

Ground troops continued “clearing operations” in Payao, while the Navy, according to a police report, positioned three patrol gunboats in Alicia and Margosatubig to prevent bandits from escaping to the sea.

“They (lawless elements) are cornered and they are in various fighting positions… pinu-push sila dun sa shore na kung saan nakaabang ang Navy,” Cabunoc said.

3 Sibugay ambushers nabbed

As the operations intensified, police confirmed the arrest of three people, including a teenager, suspected of carrying out the ambush that left five soldiers dead and three others wounded in Alicia last week.

Seperino Casimiro, 52, Almer Casimiro, 25, and a 17-year-old male were arrested by members of the Army Special Forces around 6 a.m. Saturday in seawaters off Payao, Chief Supt. Elpidio de Asis, Zamboanga Peninsula regional director, said.

Cases of multiple murder and multiple frustrated murder were filed against the three before the Provincial Prosecutor’s Office, De Asis said in a text message.

On October 20, armed men fired upon a military convoy in Alicia, killing five soldiers, including 1Lt. Wilfredo Angcog of the 9th Field Artillery Battalion.

The MILF had said that the attack was carried out by its fighters in retaliation for the military operations in Payao.

It is still unknown if those arrested are members of the rebel group, De Asis said.

Thousands flee

More than 10,000 people in at least two towns of Zamboanga Sibugay were either affected or forced to flee by clashes between government troops and the lawless elements.

At least 610 families were affected in three barangays of Payao, where the military operation is going on, while 1,237 families were affected in neighboring Alicia, said Adriano Fuego, director of the Office of Civil Defense-9.

“Nag-evacuate sila sa lugar na medyo safe, pumupunta sa ibang barangay within the same municipality… Ang total na lahat, 10,385 persons,” Fuego told reporters by phone.

The local government of Payao and Alicia have started giving food and other basic needs to the evacuees using 5 percent of their “calamity fund,” he said.

MILF ‘disowns’ Abdusalam

Meanwhile, the military said the MILF cannot accuse it of breaking the ceasefire after the rebel group denied that Abdusalam is a member.

Colonel Arnulfo Burgos, AFP public affairs chief, said the MILF Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces made the denial when the government “verified” Abdusalam’s status through the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG).

“Waning Abdusalam is not in their record, hence not a member,” said a text message from the MILF AHJAG, which Burgos showed to reporters.

“They (MILF) can no longer accuse us of violating the ceasefire,” Burgos said. The MILF earlier said the military operations in Payao breached the truce.

In the same text message, the MILF also denied that Putot and Ogis Jakaria were its members, and described them as “notorious outlaws, kidnappers.”

“Putot and Ogis are now hiding in Basilan, no longer in Sibugay while Waning’s whereabouts are unknown since he got married in Sacol a few years back,” the MILF AHJAG report added.

‘Intel game’ in Basilan

Meanwhile, Burgos said the military is intensifying its “intelligence gathering” in Basilan after receiving the report that the Jakaria brothers are there.

“We should be thorough, (an operation should be) carefully planned and deliberate, intelligence-driven, and focused. We have to be precise regarding our target,” he said.

The military may even ask the MILF to open its “area of temporary stay” to look for the Jakarias and Dan Laksaw Asnawi, Burgos said.

Asnawi, who the MILF had already admitted to be a leader of its 114th Base Command, is said to have figured in the clash that killed 19 Army troopers in Al Barkah on October 18.

40 officials conniving with ‘lawless elements’

Meanwhile, Interior and Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo said he wants to file charges against about 40 municipal and barangay officials in Basilan and Sulu who are being “disloyal” to the government by conniving with “lawless elements.”

“Ang may problema po talaga is Basilan in particular, hindi po tayo siguro sa loyalties nung ibang namamahala sa lugar… there is something that we need to address, there are local officials who either coerced, who are cooperating with them (lawless elements),” Robredo said in a briefing in Camp Crame Tuesday afternoon.

Among the 40 are municipal mayors, barangay captains, and kagawads, he said.

“Ang hirap po sa lugar na ito, ‘yung kanilang family ties, magkakamag-anak lahat. There are instances na one member of the family belongs to the group of the government, the other members to lawless elements. We really need to do an honest-to-goodness assessment,” Robredo said.

“Sa akin dapat sampahan sila ng kaso, dalawang kaso ho ‘yun dapat admin at criminal is para maalis sila sa kanilang tungkulin. ‘Yung criminal aspect ay pag ilaw ay naging disloyal sa ating bansa, lalo na ikaw ay may tungkulin, ay merong kaukulang parusa ito,” he added. (John Roson)

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