PAYAO, Zamboanga Sibugay (MindaNews) – Payao Mayor Joeper H. Mendoza has confirmed reports from the Armed Forces of the Philippines that government troops have occupied Sitio Talaib in Barangay Labatan here where “lawless elements” are supposed to be hiding, after 13 days of assault operations led by the 53rd Infantry Battalion of the 103rd Brigade.
The mayor said the operations started on October 15, contrary to media reports that what happened here was an offshoot of the October 18 clash between soldiers and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Basilan. The Basilan clash left 19 soldiers dead and 10 injured and on the side of the MILF, five killed and two others injured, according to MILF spokesperson Von al Haq.
Civilians described the military operations here as consisting of massive aerial and ground bombing.
The Municipal Social Welfare and Development Office said 3,241 families were affected.
Mayor Mendoza explained that the assault operations that started October 15 resulted from a shooting incident that happened a day earlier in Sitio Talaib where three members of the 53rd Infantry Battalion and a militiaman were wounded.
Senior Inspector Rolando Bartolome, Payao Police Chief, said, “ joint forces composed of municipal police, members of the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) and some CAFGU (Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Unit), numbering some 100 armed forces, went to Sitio Talaib to serve Warrants of Arrest against four identified suspected criminals and several John Does on October 14.”
“On our way to Sitio Talaib, armed med opened fire at us,” Bartolome said. He estimated there were around 140 armed men defending the area.
“The following day, the AFP attacked the area with aerial and ground bombing,” he said.
Bartolome identified those who were to be served their warrants as Talib Jail Asaaali, Juaning Abdulsalam, Putot Jackaria and several John Does.
Bartolome said Asaali was wanted for the murder of a barangay captain in this municipality while Jackaria and Abdulsalam were implicated in the kidnapping of the Italian priest Fr. John Carlo Bossi.
Abdulsalam has been identified in several media reports as an MILF commander but MILF spokesperson al Haq said he is not a member of the MILF.
Former MNLF camp
Sitio Talaib, which was the object of intermittent massive bombing that lasted for 12 days, is an isolated coastal area buffered by swampland facing the island comprising the municipalities of Talusan, Mabuhay and Olutanga. The coast of the sitio is accessible by a 15-minute pumpboat ride but the wide area of swamp poses a challenge to anyone wishing to reach its mainland.
Sources said the sitio used to be a camp of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) – Camp Hadji Suaib of the the 2nd Marine Brigade of the Bangsamoro Armed Forces – until July this year when forces of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) were reported to have taken over the camp.
But the police chief said he would not want to refer to it as an MILF camp. “Ang alam ko lang ang erya na yan ay pinupugaran ng masasamang element “ (What I know is that the area is a haven of bad elements), Bartolome said.
The mayor refers to the area as a “sitio.”
In serving the warrants of arrest along with a composite group of about a hundred, Bartolome said they did not coordinate with the occupants of the area because “I don’t know kung kanino tayo magpapaalam dyan.”
A 2002 agreement between government and the MILF peace panels provides for an Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG) to pursue and apprehend criminal elements operating in “MILF/areas communities.”
If Sitio Talaib were an “MILF area/community,” the peace process requires government operatives to coordinate with the MILF through the AHJAG and the Joint Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (Joint CCCH).
But “criminals operating beyond MILF areas/communities are considered beyond the purview of the peace process,” the agreement on AHJAG provides.
Residents in Payao said the intermittent bombing of Sitio Talaib continued from October 15 to October 25, although there were some days when not a single bomb was dropped. But there were more days of bombing, they said.
“Nahadlok kami sa mga buto-buto” (We were afraid of the explosions), said Rosalinda Olani, 38, mother to 10-year old Rose, one of the evacuees from barangay Kawayan in Alicia town who evacuated to Guintulan Elementary School in Payao.
“Gisultian pud kami sa barangay konsehal nga mobakwit” (We were told by the barangay councilor to evacuate), Olani added.
Olani and the rest of the evacuees in Guintulan had only received three kilos of rice, three canned goods, and three pouches of noodles five days ago from the Provincial Social Welfare and Development (PSWD). These relief goods had long been consumed as Olani’s group had been in the evacuation center for six days now. They are asking for more food assistance.
As the AFP announced its occupation of Sitio Talaib, Bartolome said, “We have not been able to arrest the lawless elements that we were after,” referring to Asaali, Abdulsalam and Jackaria.
He added: “They remain at large.”
Clearing the area
A resident in Payao who has communication lines with the armed group in Sitio Talaib denies military claims of casualties on the part of the “lawless elements” and said “may 16 sugatan lang” (injured). The source, who requested anonymity said the armed group left the area evening of October 25, before the military forces were able to occupy it.
Lt. Col. Randolph Cabangbang, Western Mindanao spokesperson, said Lt. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer, Western Mindanao Command chief, went to Sitio Talaib with Vice Admiral Armando Guzman and other officials Thursday and found Abdusalam’s “fortified structures.”
“Our focus right now is clearing the area of unexploded mines and searching the mangrove where it is reported that they hastily dumped their firearms. Efforts are also exerted to locate the wounded criminals who may have slipped the cordon during the night,” Cabangbang quoted Ferrer as saying.
Ferrer reported the sitio is “an empty fishing village where our troops noticed more than 15 freshly dug graves in the cemetery.”
Cabangbang said Ferrer gave instructions to the soldiers “not to disturb the graves.”
The sitio, Ferrer said, is “actually the soutside strongpoint of the criminals.”
Cabangbang also quoted Ferrer saying there is a small mosque in the sitio and that “blood is everywhere” and that it was likely where they brought their wounded and dying comrades. (Jules L. Benitez with a report from Carolyn O. Arguillas/ MindaNews)