15 Philippine soldiers killed by Abu Sayyaf; 2 beheaded

 30 Aug 2016 - 13:47

15 Philippine soldiers killed by Abu Sayyaf; 2 beheaded
Soldiers carry onto a C130 military plane the caskets of their comrades killed after a battle against Islamist militant group Abu Sayyaf in Jolo, Sulu province, southern Philippines August 30, 2016. REUTERS/Nickee Butlangan

By Roy Ramos
ZAMBOANGA CITY, the Philippines: Fifteen soldiers have been killed, two of them beheaded, as a military offensive ordered by President Rodrigo Duterte against a Daesh-linked group enters its fifth day in the Philippines south.
Early Tuesday, the military's Western Mindanao Command center based in Zamboanga City released a field report to local media saying the army troops, including an officer, were killed in a fierce gunbattle Monday in the Abu Sayyaf stronghold town of Patikul, less than 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from Jolo, the capital of Sulu province.
A private first class soldier is one of two soldiers reported to have been beheaded by Abu Sayyaf fighters.
The military report said that others killed in the clash -- which erupted at 4.30 p.m. (0830GMT) in the village of Maligay -- was an army officer, whose identity as well as those of other fatalities have been withheld pending notification of their families.
In Manila, Col. Edgard Arevalo, chief of the army's public affairs office, said that troops from the Army's 35th Infantry Battalion and 21st Infantry Battalion engaged Monday in fierce gunbattle with "more or less 120 heavily armed terrorists".
He added that the number of casualties on the Abu Sayyaf side had yet to be determined.
Army soldiers from other areas immediately rushed to the scene to pursue withdrawing terrorists, while others provided blocking forces.
GMA News quoted Gen. Ricardo Visaya, the army's chief of staff, as underlining that the campaign against the group would continue despite the casualties.
"There may still be casualties along the way as we advance this solemn duty to eradicate these bandits and terrorists of 25 years, but we will not stop until we rid our country of the menace this ASG [Abu Sayyaf Group] brings to the world," Visaya said.
On Monday the military said that the bodies of at least 16 Abu Sayyaf fighters had been recovered in Patikul and Talipao towns, Sulu, after a series of firefights starting Friday.
Lt. Gen. Mayoralgo dela Cruz, commander, Western Mindanao Command, told ABS-CBN News that the Abu Sayyaf death toll in the latest skirmishes had climbed to 22.
The slain militants include three alleged sub-commanders -- Mohammad Said alias Ama Maas, Latip Sapii, and Sairulla Asbang -- Dela Cruz said.
He quoted a report from the Joint Task Group Sulu as saying three bodies were recovered from a shallow grave in one of the remote villages of Talipao.
Local residents confirmed the bodies belong to Abu Sayyaf fighters.
The latest offensive against the group follows the Aug. 24 discovery of a severed head belonging to a male Philippines national who was kidnapped July 16 in Indanan town in Sulu -- an Abu Sayyaf stronghold.
Responding to reports of the beheading, President Rodrigo Duterte reiterated a directive to the military to "destroy" the group.
“My orders to the police and armed forces against enemies of the state: seek them out in their lairs and destroy them... The Abu Sayyaf, destroy them, period,” he told a press conference in Davao City, where he served 22 years as mayor.
In the first major encounter two days later, 17 soldiers were wounded.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Monday that five more battalions will be deployed in Sulu, as ordered by Duterte.
"We are going to full force... all out operations against them. We are adding five battalions, or about 2,500 people," Lorenzana told reporters after the National Heroes Day ceremonies at the Heroes Cemetery in Manila.
On Tuesday, Chief of staff Visaya rallied the troops to continue pursuing the Abu Sayyaf.
"We have all the time. Keep the pressure on the enemy until they wear out. Just ensure they won't be able to leave the island and we will be triumphant in the end," he said.
Despite sealing an ongoing ceasefire with communist rebels and pushing for the culmination of a peace process with the country's biggest Moro rebel group, President Duterte has ruled out any peace talks with the Abu Sayyaf. 
"I am very sorry to say but there will be no peace talks about these things with the Abu Sayyaf," he said Aug. 1.
"I will not deal with persons with extreme brutality. There is no redeeming factor or reason for me to sit down and talk with criminals."
Since 1991, the Abu Sayyaf -- armed with mostly improvised explosive devices, mortars and automatic rifles -- has carried out bombings, kidnappings, assassinations and extortion in a self-determined fight for an independent province in the Philippines.
It is among two militant groups in the south who have pledged allegiance to Daesh, prompting fears during the stalling of a peace process between the government and the country's biggest Moro group that it could make inroads in a region torn by decades of armed conflict.