Fighting Erupts In Sulu Ahead Of RP-US TrainingFebruary 4, 2008 at 11:19 am | Posted in 1 | Leave a comment
SULU, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / Feb. 04, 2008) – At least 5 people were killed in fierce fighting that broke out Monday in the southern Philippine province of Sulu, where security forces were battling Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiya militants, officials and military intelligence sources said.
Officials said two soldiers and three militants were killed in the fighting that erupted before day break in the village of Ipil in Maimbung town, a known stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf group with ties to Jemaah Islamiya, an Indonesian terror group blamed for the 2002 deadly Bali bombings that killed 202 people.
“Three terrorists were killed and two of our soldiers are also slain in the fighting in Sulu. There is an ongoing operation against the terrorists,” Army Major Eugene Batara, a spokesman for the Western Mindanao Command, told The Mindanao Examiner.
Batara said five soldiers were also wounded in the clash that began shortly before 3 a.m. “The soldiers were on a mission to rescue a kidnapped trader when they encountered the terrorists,” he said.
It was not immediately known whether the group was holding Rosalie Lao, 45, who was kidnapped Jan. 28 outside her home in Jolo town. Lao, who buys and sells Malaysian goods in Jolo, is a Filipino Muslim with Chinese ancestry.
The fighting erupted barely a week before US and Philippine troops are to begin joint humanitarian and medical missions in Sulu, about 950 kilometers south of Manila, as part of the Balikatan 2008.
Balikatan, which means “shoulder-to-shoulder”, is the codename for the annual joint anti-terror training and hundreds of US troops are deployed in Sulu since last year where they also held a joint military drill with local soldiers.
Government intelligence sources said a group of Jemaah Islamiya militants were fighting alongside with the Abu Sayyaf. But it was unknown whether the militants were local recruits or Indonesians.
Filipino authorities previously said that as many as 40 Indonesian militants are hiding in Sulu and being protected by the Abu Sayyaf and among them are Dulmatin and Umar Patek, who masterminded the Bali attacks.
The heightened Abu Sayyaf activity on Sulu began when the military ordered thousands of infantrymen, including an army brigade, deployed to Lanao province on January 18. Only two marine brigades, composed of about 5,000 soldiers and a few hundred army troops, are left to quell a growing insurgency and terrorism, especially at a time that peace is slowly returning to Sulu, one of five provinces under the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
Village leaders were also asking the military to send additional troops to Sulu to address the threats of the Abu Sayyaf, blamed on the spate of terrorism and kidnappings in the province.
Provincial government officials fear the Abu Sayyaf may be active again after months of silence. Officials were worried about the implications of the kidnapping and threats of terrorism to Sulu’s economy and the peace and order situation at a time the province is being promoted as a new cultural and tourism destination in southern Philippines.
Sulu has recently embarked on a tourism campaign called “Visit Sulu 2008” in an effort to attract visitors and investments in the province, whose pristine beaches, dive sites and beautiful tropical islands are one of its attractions.
The US Embassy in Manila on Monday said the Balikatan will take place in the Philippines starting on February 18 up to March 3.
“During Balikatan 2008, Philippine and U.S. members of the armed forces will conduct humanitarian assistance projects in Central and Western Mindanao, the Sulu Archipelago, and Palawan. They will offer free medical, dental, and veterinary care and construct and repair schools and other community infrastructure in communities most in need of assistance.”
“The Balikatan 2008 will also focus on training both of our armed forces to provide relief and assistance together, in the event of natural disasters and other crises that endanger public health and safety. Military service members of our countries will conduct combined staff exercises and field training in Luzon and Palawan to improve contingency planning and strengthen maritime security.
U.S. Navy ship visits and a Joint/Combined Exchange Training exercise will take place in several locations in the Philippines,” it said. (With a report from Nickee Butlangan)