DAVAO CITY, Philippines – A captain of the elite Scout Ranger and 3 other soldiers died in a series of firefights in Maguindanao between government troops and the breakaway Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
At least 20 troops, including several junior officers and a Huey chopper co-pilot, were also wounded in the past days as central Mindanao witnessed the worst conflict since the signing of a peace agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) last year.
A source told Rappler that the Scout Ranger captain was the executive officer of the unit of elite soldiers deployed to run after BIFF rebels and wanted terrorist Abdul Basit Usman in the town of Datu Saudi Ampatuan.
The military has orders from President Benigno Aquino III to neutralize Usman, who reportedly managed to escape the January 25 attack in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, that killed top terrorist Zulikfli bin Hir (Marwan).
The US government has Usman on its most-wanted list with a $1 million bounty on his head. Washington and Manila say he has links to Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf, two groups of Southeast Asian militants.
The military believes Usman is being sheltered by the BIFF, which broke away from the MILF and is opposed to the peace process. The MILF earlier vowed to run after Usman, too.
In two recent encounters, government troops killed at least 4 members of the BIFF – one of whom wore a Special Action Force (SAF) uniform.
Mounted more than a week ago, the military and BIFF attacks have dislocated at least 75,000 civilians.
The military claimed killing 14 rebels in the series of attacks against the BIFF, but only 4 bodies have been recovered from the area.
Reports from ground forces also said that about 30 BIFF rebels were injured in these battles.
Evacuating the wounded
The identities of the slain Army troops are being withheld as the military wants to inform their families first.
Among the injured was 2nd Lt Anthony Puebla, who was hit by an M203 round which exploded after he opened the hatch of his armored vehicle while evacuating wounded soldeirs from the encounter site last Friday, March 6.
"He was going in and out of the area. Instead of evacuating wounded soldiers, Puebla himself was also evacuated by his fellow troops after he sustained injuries from the blast," said Capt. Jo-Ann Petinglay, spokesperson of the military's 6th Infantry Division.
Medics at the military division headquarters in Datu Odin Sinsuat rushed to assist Puebla. But his condition worsened, prompting them to bring him to Manila last Saturday, March 7, for surgery, Petinglay said.
A co-pilot of a Huey chopper was also hit by sniper fire while inserting ground troops somewhere in Datu Saudi Ampatuan on Friday.
The pilot was on his third trip along with another chopper to bring government soldiers to a fortified position of the BIFF in the area.
The plan was to make quick trips just enough for the troops to jump off and maneuver their way. On their 3rd trip, however, BIFF rebels opened fire while a sniper aimed his shot at the pilots.
Two other soldiers were hurt after their convoy of military ambulances was hit by a roadside bomb.
Human rights groups have expressed concern that the military offensive is taking its toll on civilians and will eventually drain the resources of the government, which now has to feed and shelter thousands of evacuees. – Rappler.com