ZAMBOANGA CITY: The number of Philippine troops running after the Abu Sayyaf in the southern island province of Sulu is expected to swell to about 9,000 by next week, the Armed Forces said on Thursday, amid taunts by the ruthless kidnap-for-ransom group that it was prepared for a “jihad.”
The deployment is the largest concentration of troops in a single area in recent memory, Armed Forces of the Philippines chief spokesperson Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said.
It also comes shortly after 15 soldiers were slain by the Abu Sayyaf in fierce clashes this week in Jolo, where the terrorists are holding a number of foreign hostages, including a Dutch birdwatcher seized in 2012 and a Norwegian abducted last year from a beach resort.
The gunmen earlier this year beheaded two Canadian hostages, while an 18-year-old Filipino captive suffered the same fate recently.
President Duterte called on the public on Wednesday night to be vigilant against retaliatory attacks in the wake of intensified military operations.
“You should be on guard since we’re hitting them hard,” Mr. Duterte said in a speech in Davao City. “I expect some…retribution also from them. That’s their reprisal.”
He said the gunmen “do not live by the laws of civilization. They are really evil.”
Padilla said the troop deployment was the biggest in recent memory and was “indicative of government’s resolve to crush the Abu Sayyaf.”
He said the deployment was equivalent to almost two Army divisions, with 8,000 fighting soldiers in place.
Army Chief Lt. Gen. Eduardo Año said three more infantry battalions consisting of around 1,500 soldiers were on their way to reinforce the troops already in Sulu. They were expected to arrive in the capital Jolo by Saturday.
Padilla said the troop buildup was part of President Duterte’s vow to crush the Abu Sayyaf, who are believed to number fewer than 250 fighters but are known to blend in well in Jolo’s rough jungle terrain.
He said troop realignments were also ongoing in nearby Basilan island, where there was also an Abu Sayyaf presence.
“Artillery support is high. The required artillery support or fire support that our operating troops are requesting are provided. We have adequate air and naval support,” Padilla said.
Abu Sayyaf spokesperson Alhabsi Misaya said they were ready for the offensive, as he called on all Tausugs to join in a jihad or holy war.
Misaya, in text messages, said the Abu Sayyaf had anticipated that “by Sept. 1, the Abu Sayyaf and soldiers of Duterte will test each other in a liberation.”
‘To the finish’
Misaya, who is under the command of overall Abu Sayyaf leader Radulan Sahiron, said this would be “the last war of Patikul to the finish.”
“If they are given courage, this war is more fierce than in Zamboanga,” Misaya wrote in one of the text messages to the Inquirer, adding that they would rather “initiate the attack against the soldiers of Duterte.”
“The Abu Sayyaf is ready with its more than 1,000 forces to do a jihad,” he added.
Lt. Gen. Mayoralgo dela Cruz, chief of the Western Mindanao Command based in Zamboanga City, said he received a similar message but minimized the Abu Sayyaf’s real force as being only between 200-250.
Dela Cruz said the military would prefer the Abu Sayyaf staged the attacks as “it’s better to be this way, so that we will no longer be hunting them.” – Philippine Daily Inquirer/Asia News Network