Only freshly-dug pits and guns were found in the lair of Waning Abdusalam in Payao, Zamboanga Sibugay, on Thursday, fueling speculation that the bandit leader and his men were dead, or may have escaped.

“Mukhang nakatakas sila, kasi itong paligid ay punung-puno ng mga bakawan, so kung babaybay siguro sila sa bakawan at andun lang sila sa mababaw na lugar, ay hindi sila mapapansin ng mga nagbabantay sa may dagat,” Chief Supt. Elpidio de Asis, Zamboanga Peninsula regional police director, said in a phone interview.

De Asis, Armed Forces Western Mindanao Command Lt. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer, and Naval Forces Western Mindanao commander VAdm. Armando Guzman, visited the overthrown camp in Sitio Talaib, Brgy. Labatan, on Thursday to inspect what has been described as a “stronghold” of kidnap-for-ransom groups.

“Wala ang grupo ng Waning Abdusalam pero nakuha na uli namin itong lugar… wala na silang kampo, wala na silang pagtataguan, naghiwa-hiwalay na sila, ‘yun naman ang hahabulin namin ngayon,” De Asis said.

Possible areas of escape are Alicia and Olutanga Island, he said.

De Asis, however, pointed out that it was also possible that not all of the bandits escaped because freshly-dug pits were found in the camp.

Ferrer, in a statement sent to the media, said troops found more than 15 “freshly dug graves” in an empty fishing village at Talaib Point.

“I gave instructions to our soldiers not to disturb the graves anymore. The fishing village is actually the south side strongpoint of the criminals,” he said.

“There is also a small mosque. Blood is everywhere. I guess this is where they brought their wounded and dying comrades. Gun emplacements were found at the northern part of Sitio Talaib,” Ferrer added.

In a text message to reporters Wednesday night, Army chief Lt. Gen. Arturo Ortiz said he recieved reports that Abdusalam was seriously wounded in the police-military assault.

“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.

In a press briefing in Camp Crame on Thursday, AFP public affairs chief Col. Arnulfo Burgos said the military has so far recovered only four bodies of suspects, all of whom died on October 24, the first day of the assault.

Another 12 suspects are believed to have perished in on the second day of the assault, when OV-10 military planes dropped bombs, he said.

Burgos said the troops also recovered from the camp on Thursday a caliber-.50 machine gun and more than 10 improvised explosive devices. (John Roson)

– end –