Cotabato-Isulan highway now open for motorists – Army

DATU SAUDI AMPATUAN, Maguindanao (MindaNews/10 Aug) – After five days of painstakingly clearing it of snipers and booby traps, the military said  the highway linking Cotabato and Isulan cities is now open for public transportation.

Col. Prudencio Asto, spokesperson of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, said joint Army and Philippine National Police Special Action Forces have finally recaptured  Friday afternoon the last three-kilometer stretch of highway between the towns of Datu Unsay and Datu Ampatuan earlier occupied by the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

SEARCH OPERATIONS. Inch by inch, policemen clear the vital highway linking Cotabato and Isulan cities on August 10, 2012. After the highway was closed for five days, the military said they have finally cleared the highway of rebel snipers and declared it safe for motorists. MindaNews photo by Froilan Gallardo“The highway is already open. Now that the PNP Special Action Forces are here, we can now better protect vehicular traffic that will use the highway,” Asto said.

An armed convoy led by Col. Mayoralgo de la Cruz, of the 1st Mechanized Brigade, earlier attempted to cross the stretch of highway Friday morning but was fired upon by snipers positioned in the nearby hills.

Cruz said the rebels left behind on the highway visible to the troops what they thought was an improvised explosive device.

As soon as the soldiers alighted, shots from snipers rang out from nearby hills, prompting De la Cruz to issue orders not to open the highway yet.

A TV news team said they saw empty shell casings littered on the highway and soldiers lying prone on the nearby grounds.

Later by mid-morning,  another convoy of  30 tanks and police cars made another attempt from Shariff Aguak town and was successful in reaching the other end of the closed highway in Barangay Salvo, Datu Ampatuan town without any untoward incident.

“We were able to cross the highway without being fired upon by the snipers. So far this is a good sign that they have withdrawn from the nearby hills,” Maguindanao police provincial director Senior Supt. Marcelo Pintac said.

Along the way, Pintac said he saw the devastation caused by the five-day shooting war ¬– burnt houses and a mosque heavily damaged by bullets.

“I cannot really assess  the damage since the convoy was moving fast but I saw about two houses that were burned down,” Pintac told reporters.

Residents have been worrying about their houses and farms they have left behind since 300 armed BIFF members, trying to avenge the death of one of its members, attacked Army detachments in six Maguindanao towns.

Many of them were seen at the military checkpoint in Barangay Salvo in Datu Saudi Ampatuan municipality trying to gather enough courage to cross the no man’s land to Datu Unsay town.

A few residents who did came back with stories of houses being ransacked and furniture stolen.

The military said six soldiers have already died since the fighting began last Sunday

Pintac said PNP Special Action Forces from Davao and General Santos cities have been tapped to help maintain the security of the highway where around 300 BIFF members took control last Sunday night.

“The general idea is the police will guard the highway, leaving the Army to pursue the rebels in the mountains,” Pintac said. (Froilan Gallardo / MindaNews)