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15 newly-dug graves found in Zambo Sibugay as rebel-outlaws flee due to airstrikes

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Government forces that overran a rebel-outlaw stronghold in Zamboanga Sibugay have found 15 freshly dug graves and are now clearing the area of unexploded landmines planted by the enemy before they fled during a wave of bombing runs by Philippine Air Force planes, a military spokesman said.

Col. Arnulfo Burgos Jr., spokesman of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), said in a press briefing in Camp Crame Thursday afternoon that wanted notorious outlaw leader Waning Abdulsalam’s heavily fortified hideout in Sitio Talaib in the town of Payao had been captured after two days of gun battle and pounding by OV-10 light bombers of the PAF.

Lt. Gen. Raymundo B. Ferrer, commander of the Western Mindanao Command (WesMinCom), visited the area to supervise the ongoing military operation, together with Vice Admiral Armando Guzman, commander of the Naval Force Western Command (NFWeM), and Chief Elpidio de Asis of the Philippine National Police (PNP) for Region 9.

It was believed the fleeing outlaws suffered heavy casualties as shown by the blood found scattered in the area.

“I have just visited the area in Sitio Talaib, Barangay Labatan, Payao where we had been conducting joint operations with the PNP for the past days,” Ferrer said in a text message to Manila-based reporters.

“We have occupied Waning Abdulsalam’s fortified structures and our focus right now is clearing the area of unexploded mines,” he added.
“We could not move freely since our EOD (explosive ordinance demolition) team has to mark first the safe areas where we can pass through,” the area said.

Ferrer also said that the troops are also searching the mangrove nearby where it was reported that the rebel-outlaws “hastily dumped their firearms” as they fled in fear when Air Force men launched a series of airstrikes along with artillery bombardment by the Philippine Army.

“Efforts are also exerted to locate the wounded criminals who may have slipped the cordon during the night,” Ferrer said.

According to Ferrer, the troops noticed 15 freshly dug graves in the cemetery of a nearby fishing village, hinting that these were the bodies of the outlaws who were killed during the combined military-police assault on the enemy’s lair.

“I gave instructions to our soldiers not to disturb the graves anymore,” Ferrer said in his text message.

Ferrer pointed out that “the fishing village is actually the south side strongpoint of the criminals” where there is a small mosque in the area.

“Blood is everywhere. I guess this is where they brought their wounded and dying comrades,” he said, adding that “gun emplacements were found at the northern part of Sitio Talaib.”

The soldiers recovered one .50 caliber machine gun, although there were two machine gun nests fortified with logs and sand, he said.

The outlaws were also armed with two .50 caliber machine guns during the firefight, Ferrer said.

Ferrer said the outlaw’s hideout "is laden with mines that you have to admire the ground troops for their steadfast determination to regain the territory from the lawless group.”

“The safe haven of kidnapping operations and terrorist activities in Zamboanga Sibugasy has fallen,” Ferrer announced following the capture of the outlaws' stronghold.

“We have reestablished our authority in this part of Payao and we owe it to the joint forces, our army, air force, navy and police who fought long and hard,” Ferrer said.

Government troops launched hot pursuit operations against lawless elements in Mindanao following the ambush-killing of 19 Army Special Forces in Al-Barka, Basilan last October 18. Fourteen other soldiers were wounded during the attack by combined forces of renegade Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) members and armed bandits in the area.

Two more soldiers and four others were wounded when a bandit group attacked them in Lanao del Norte.

President Benigno S. Aquino III has rejected calls for an all-out war against the MILF but vowed all-out justice for the slain soldiers with the military launching hot pursuit operations against the perpetrators of the recent attacks.

“We will not pursue all-out war; we will instead pursue all-out justice,” the President stressed in a statement.

“There have been calls to wage an 'all-out war' against the MILF. While it is tempting for government to join the chorus in calling for blood, we believe that such a course of action is not appropriate at this point. We are not interested in knee-jerk reactions that will jeopardize our efforts to address the roots of conflict in the region,” he stated in a press briefing held in Malacañang.

Aquino said that choosing war over peace talks will result to further problems. “It is so easy, out of frustration, to close the door on negotiations at this time. If we go down this path, more innocent civilians will be put in harm’s way. The difficult peace process cannot be enhanced by shedding more blood and generating more ill will. We have to exhaust all possibilities for attaining peace through dialogue.”

The President said he has ordered intensified operations against all the criminal elements. “The mailed fist of the state will be brought to bear upon them so that justice may be served. There is no question that the state will find them; the only remaining question is when. There will be sacrifices in addressing this decades-old problem.”

Aquino urged all sectors to cooperate in this endeavor. “This is not a purely military or police effort. Our local government and community leaders must assist in our efforts to achieve a holistic solution to the problems of the region,” he said, stressing that the government will always be mindful of the safety and needs of the people.

“Let me remind everyone that there are those who will try to use this incident to gain political leverage and further agitate the public. Rash decisions fueled by a thirst for vengeance can only serve to dishonor the memory of the 19 brave souls who died last week, and the many others lost in our efforts to win the peace,” he added.

Various sectors, particularly in Mindanao, called on the public to support Aquino’s decision not to pursue an all-out war against the MILF.

Former President Fidel V. Ramos also supported the move of President Aquino.

Sulu Governor Abdusakur Tan said, “War mongering will only worsen the situation and stokes sentiments that are divisive and counter-productive. Sobriety is called to fore in these trying times and patience should prevail to give peace a surviving chance.”

Rep. Pangalian Balindong likewise said no to total war in Mindanao. “To wage 'total' war is by definition to take huge numbers of innocent lives -- and perpetuate the cycle of senseless violence, death, and destruction.”

In the same light, the Association of Women Religious in the Archdiocese of Cotabato stated that all-out war can cause massive displacement as what happened during the time of former President Joseph Estrada. “In an all-out war, it’s the civilians that will suffer, anger and hatred among people will escalate especially among those who lost their loved ones because of war.”

Fr. Robert Reyes, more popularly known as the running priest, said that violence breeds more violence. “Right now, we need to reassess our ways during armed struggles. With the President’s decision not to wage war against the MILF, I just hope that the constituencies of peace will grow.”
The San Carlos Borromeo Parish Pastoral Council, in its statement, appealed for “peace and sobriety in this most trying time for us Mindanaoans in the wake of the Basilan crisis.”

“We condemn, in the strongest terms, violence and criminality. We appreciate the stand of the President to pursue the Peace Process as well as the MILF's suggestion for an impartial investigation. We, however, seek justice for the 19 young soldiers and five MILF combatants who were killed,” they also said.
The Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy also called for the “immediate conduct of an investigation to pinpoint once and for all the culprit of these atrocities and spare the innocent civilians from armed hostilities.”

On the other hand, the Bangsamoro civil society organizations in South Central Mindanao expressed support to the steadfastness of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on Peace Process (OPAPP) Secretary Teresita Deles in pushing for peace initiatives in the region.

The Al-Mujadillah Development Foundation likewise issued a statement supporting President Aquino's call for everyone to come together to achieve a holistic solution in the region.

By Ben Cal-PIA9-ZBST




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