AFP winning war vs Abu, NPA – Esperon

He claimed the AFP has gained momentum in the fight against insurgents and terrorists in Mindanao.

He said there are now only 486 members of the Abu Sayyaf, down by 86 compared to last year.

NPA rebels in Mindanao, too, has been reduced to only 7,098, down by 5,000 compared to five years ago, Esperon said.

He said they are determined to reduce the Abu Sayyaf further and are hunting their leaders as the focus of the AFP’s campaign in Mindanao.

Esperon said that with the split of Southern Command (SouthCom) six months ago, the AFP in Mindanao has simplified its operations and now has more focus.

The Western Mindanao Command (WesMinCom) focuses on the Abu Sayyaf and other terrorists groups while the Eastern Mindanao Command (EastMinCOm) on the communist rebels.

He said with the set up, he is confident that they are addressing the Abu Sayyaf lairs in Sulu and "adequately addressing" the remaining lairs in Central Mindanao.

Esperon said he could not rate the performance of the two commands but he said the measure for a strategic victory is when they can capture the terrorists' leaders and reduce the remaining NPA forces by 50 percent in three years.

He said over the weekend they have put terrorist groups on the run after claiming victory in Jolo, Sulu following the "neutralization" of five alleged Abu Sayyaf members and an alleged Indonesian Jemaah Islamiyah militant in an encounter with the military off the sea in Tawi-tawi.

He also allayed fears of terrorist attacks at the ASEAN Summit this week in Cebu.

In a press conference at the headquarters of the 10th Infantry Division of the Philippine Army here Tuesday, Esperon said that after intensified operations in Sulu, some parts of Mindanao and in Metro Manila, the terror groups' capability to plan and deploy in other areas had been crippled.

He said they have secured the venue of the summit and have not monitored any concrete plans of terror groups to disrupt Cebu.

Esperon said he understands the responsibilities of sovereign countries, like Australia, to advise their citizens about the conditions of the countries they are going to.

"But as to the case of Cebu and some parts of Mindanao, they are not necessarily as pictured in the travel advisories," he said.

Esperon said even if he could give no guarantee against any terror activity during the summit, they have deployed 5,000 troops to prevent and counter acts by terrorists. He pointed out that the deployment is the source of their confidence in saying they have secured the summit.

He announced that President Arroyo has ordered the start of Bantay Laya 2 campaign "to defeat the communist movement by 2010, to destroy the Abu Sayyaf Group, and to contain the secessionist groups.

Esperon, who was with Arroyo in Jolo Monday, said he is in town to start visits to AFP line units. He said this is to set the tone and come to common understanding about Arroyo's order on Bantay Laya 2 (Guarding Freedom).

He said the campaign is for the armed forces to establish a psychologically and physically secure environment conducive to national development. (Walter I. Balane / MindaNews)