RP beefs up campaign against Abu Sayyaf

LAMITAN, Philippines, AFP

Grief-stricken villagers on Monday began burying the remains of 10 locals beheaded by Abu Sayyaf kidnappers in a southern Philippine island as the authorities moved to beef up military protection for citizens.

“Abu Sayyaf is Satan,” Gliceria Ramirez wailed as she clung to the sealed coffin of her brother Tereso Ramirez. She also blamed the military and government militias for failing to protect their village.

Practically the entire town of Lamitan on Basilan island turned out on the streets to view the funeral cortege of Ramirez and two of his nephews, Alexander and Alvin Ramirez, whose caskets were borne atop a flatbed truck on the way to the local Roman Catholic church.

Masked Abu Sayyaf rebels armed with machetes and assault rifles raided a village on the outskirts of Lamitan last week and snatched nearly three dozen men, women and children in retaliation for a massive military crackdown ordered by President Gloria Arroyo.

Ten men were beheaded while the rest were recovered alive.

Tereso Ramirez’ widow Cecilia Ramirez, who was among those who survived the kidnapping, also attended the funeral. She said the group was marched off at gunpoint in the dark, with the menfolk gradually separated from the women and children.

Thursday’s attack by the Abu Sayyaf was “swift and done in total darkness” and was meant to ease pressure on the main guerrilla unit holding two Americans and 19 Filipinos seized from a western resort two months ago, military spokesman Edilberto Adan said.

Brigadier Adan said additional manpower was necessary to go after the Abu Sayyaf. The 5,000 soldiers earlier deployed were found to be insufficient to cover the jungle-clad 1,327 square kilometer (823 square mile) island, he added.

They are “having a hard time moving and we expect an encounter any time and hopefully this will result in the rescue of the hostages,” Adan told a news conference in Manila.

Basilan army commander Colonel Hermogenes Esperon said “scores” of Abu Sayyaf gunmen were believed to have been killed when the military launched an air strike against rebel positions on Sunday after the rebels slaughtered 10 hostages.

The military put two MG-520 attack helicopters on standby for further air strikes Monday, while speeding up the training of civilian militias at a boot camp in Basilan’s capital Isabela. They will be deployed as “territorial defense” forces.

“We are now reviewing to determine whether there is a need to augment our (military) forces, in other words increasing the number of battalions and this will be done by our southern command chief,” Adan said.

Adan said ground troops were confident they would soon be able to free American couple Martin and Gracia Burnham and the other hostages, who he said were surviving on rice and salt.

With rebel supply routes effectively cut and their support base diminished, Adan said the Abu Sayyaf have split into smaller units that forage into remote villages.