Philippines military closing in on Abu Sayyaf

KAPAYAWAN, Philippines, AFP

The military on Tuesday said it had fixed the location of Abu Sayyaf gunmen holding two Americans and 19 Filipinos after the kidnap group beheaded 10 other hostages at the weekend.

A senior commander, speaking on condition of anonymity, said troops were tracking the Muslim rebels in the southern island of Basilan but could not strike at them for fear of injuring captives who include American missionary couple Martin and Gracia Burnham.

The official would not give details saying this might compromise the operation. The guerrillas had been on the move constantly to keep from being pinned down by the military, the official added.

Major Alberto Gepilano, spokesman of military forces in Basilan said troops clashed with an Abu Sayyaf unit in Tuburan town on Monday, killing one rebel.

Several skirmishes also broke out in different areas of the island but there were no other reports of casualties, Gepilano said.

The pursuit has gained added momentum after the Abu Sayyaf raided the Basilan town of Lamitan at the weekend, briefly taking a number of Christian villagers hostage and beheading 10 of them.

Colonel Hermogenes Esperon, leader of one of the task forces hunting the Abu Sayyaf, said they were closing in on the 30-man band that had raided Lamitan.

This group had no hostages with them, allowing the military to use all force against them, the colonel added.

“The next four to five days will be critical,” he said.

At a military re-supply point in the depths of the Basilan forest, Major Reynaldo Ordonez, one of the local commanders conceded: “We have not been catching them as fast as we want to but look at the terrain. It is very difficult.”

Esperon said the map showed only one ravine-like creek in his area of operations but on the ground, his men found they had to cross 10 such creeks.

Despite the widespread criticism of the military for not subduing the Abu Sayyaf more quickly, Esperon said his men were still in high spirits.

They had recently received night-vision equipment which had proved very helpful in their patrols.

National Security Adviser Roilo Golez said President Gloria Arroyo met her Cabinet Monday to discuss the protection of local villagers. She left for a state visit to Malaysia early Tuesday.

“The intensified crackdown will continue,” Golez said. Troops have detained 130 suspected Abu Sayyaf supporters so far, he added.

The raid on Lamitan is widely considered as retaliation for the arrests.

Military spokesman General Edilberto Adan admitted the Abu Sayyaf “slipped by us” in the Lamitan raid as troops were concentrating on guarding the town center and not the villages on the outskirts.

“It was hard to notice due to the distance and the darkness,” Adan said, adding the closest militia detachment to the raided district was a kilometer and a half (a mile) away.

“We cannot guard every village,” Adan said.