Government troops overran the lair of Waning Abdusalam in Payao, Zamboanga Sibugay, on Wednesday as elite forces were sent in to arrest the bandit leader and his cohorts.

“As of this time, the main camp of the enemy has been occupied by our troops,” Army chief Lt. Gen. Arturo Ortiz said in a text message sent to reporters 5 p.m.

Four companies, or about 400 soldiers, led by a Scout Ranger company was clearing the area as of this writing as the bandits rigged the path lanes with landmines.

Chief Supt. Elpidio de Asis, Zamboanga Peninsula regional police director, said the first enemy bunker was breached at 2:15 p.m. and government troops encountered “improvised explosive devices.”

Major Gen. Noel Coballes, commander of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, said the resistance by Abdusalam’s group on Wednesday was “not as heavy” as in the past two days, when the military had to conduct aerial bombardments.

“Mula kahapon (Tuesday) meron pang resistance, ngayon (Wednesday) meron na lang na pakaunti-kaunti,” Coballes said.

Elite troops sent in

On Tuesday night, Ortiz said a Scout Ranger company and the Light Reaction Company, the military’s most elite unit, will be sent in to the bandits’ lair early Wednesday.

“The Army will not allow those armed groups who attacked our troops to remain unpunished. We will pursue them until justice is served to those they murdered. We will not allow anymore treachery on their part,” he said.

Bandit leader wounded?

The military estimated the bandits’ numbers between 50 and 80 Wednesday noon.

It was not immediately known what happened to these, but Ortiz said they received information that Abdusalam was wounded.

“Overran ‘yung camp ni commander Waning na reported na di makalakad due to injuries sustained at kasama at least 40 na sugatang tao nya,” the Army chief said.

“Maraming reinforced bunkers and battle positions ng kalaban na nasira sa aerial at artillery bombardment,” he added.

Brigadier Gen. Jose Mabanta, AFP deputy chief of staff for operations, said in a briefing that a total of 16 bandits were reported killed since Monday though only six bodies have so far been recovered.

On Monday, two soldiers were killed and four were wounded when troops launched the assault on Abdusalam’s lair.

‘Well-defended, well-prepared’

Asked why it took three days to capture the enemy camp, Coballes said it was mainly because of the objective’s position and difficult terrain.

“Naka-defensive position sila, hindi ganung kadali magpunta dun at parang nakaprepare din ‘yung grupo ni Waning, alam nila sigurong ise-serve yung warrant of arrest sa kanila,” Coballes said.

The terrain, a small peninsula that is like an islet with a narrow land bridge, was “restrictive” to troop movement, he added.

“It was a difficult terrain, mangrove surrounded and well-fortified, we are talking of an area with fortified defensive positions. There are running trenches, there are cemented defensive positions,” Mabanta said.

The military said earlier that it positioned Naval gunboats off Payao and Alicia to prevent the bandits from escaping to the sea.

2 surrender, 19,000 flee

Before Wednesday’s operation, Nuhurin Intang, 50, and Usman Ajijun, 57, both “allies” of Abdusalam, surrendered to government troops, Army spokesman Maj. Harold Cabunoc said.

The two brought with them a 60-millimeter mortar, an M79 grenade launcher, and an M16 rifle, he said.

Meanwhile, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council said 4,003 families or 19,481 people fled their homes because of military operation against “lawless elements” not only in Zamboanga Sibugay, but also in Basilan. (John Roson)

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