Two of the Abu Sayyaf’s remaining kidnap victims, both Europeans, appeared safe despite a bloody clash between government troops and the bandit group in Talipao, Sulu, on Friday, the military commander in the province said Saturday.

Colonel Allan Arrojado, commander of the Armed Forces’ Joint Task Group Sulu, made the remark after saying that two kidnap victims – Ewold Horn of The Netherlands and Lorenzo Vinciguerra of Switzerland – were seen among Abu Sayyaf members Saturday.

Horn and Vinciguerra were spotted with heavily-armed bandits in Sitio Kan Amat, Brgy. Bagsak, Patikul, around 12 noon, Arrojado said.

The bandits, numbering about 100, were led by Abu Sayyaf top leader Radullan Sahiron, he said.

“Accordingly, some of them (Abu Sayyaf) are recuperating due to bullet wounds suffered during their firefight against AFP troops on Friday,” Arrojado said, citing field intelligence reports.

“Walang nasaktan sa mga kidnap victims,” he said, when asked if Horn and Vinciguerra had also been hurt during the fighting.

Horn and Vinciguerra, kidnapped while bird-watching in Tawi-Tawi on February 1, 2012, are among the at least nine people still held by the Abu Sayyaf.

Major Edilberto Aramponi, JTG Sulu’s civil-military operations officer, said troops did not see any of the kidnap victims during Friday’s clashes in Brgy. Bud Bunga, Talipao.

“Medyo mahirap makita dahil tinatago silang mabuti ng Abu Sayyaf,” he said.

15 dead, 58 wounded

Friday’s clash, the first “major encounter” since a renewed hunt for the Abu Sayyaf was launched in October, left 15 people dead and at least 58 others wounded.

Five soldiers, all ranked private first class, were killed. Twenty-eight others, including a young officer ranked 1st lieutenant, were hurt. All of them belong to the Army’s elite Scout Rangers.

Three of the injured are in serious condition and have been airlifted to Zamboanga City, while the rest are being treated at the station hospital in Kuta Heneral Teodulfo Bautista, Jolo, Aramponi said.

Arrojado said 10 members of the Abu Sayyaf, including sub-commander Hairullah Asbang and Sahiron’s brother-in-law Beting Jakka, were also killed while more than 30 bandits were injured.

Asbang reportedly died of bullet wounds inflicted by an MD-520 attack helicopter that was sent to support ground troops, he said.

“So far, may seven nang identified out of the 10 killed sa Abu Sayyaf. Mayroon na kaming 18 names ng more than 30 wounded sa kanila, marami pang unidentified,” Arrojado said.

Aramponi admitted that the slain Abu Sayyaf members were not recovered, though their deaths were confirmed thru intelligence operatives.

He also said there has been no evacuation of civilians because the clashes occurred far from populated areas.

Members of the Scout Rangers, Marines, and the Army’s 32nd and 35th Infantry Battalions are still in the jungles to pursue the Abu Sayyaf, Aramponi said.

More than 2,500 soldiers are presently in Sulu to run after Abu Sayyaf members, following an order by President Benigno Aquino to stop the al Qaeda-linked group’s kidnapping activities “once and for all.”

The “law enforcement operation” was launched after the bandits released two other Europeans captives – Germans Stefan Viktor Okonek and Henrike Dielen – on October 17, following an alleged payment of ransom. (John Roson)

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