MANILA: Philippine security forces on Friday launched an air strike on a hideout where militants were suspected of plotting a major new terror attack.
The bombing raid targeted the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in an area of Sulu province where ASG leader Radulan Sahiron, another senior chief Hajan Sawadjaan, and an estimated 200 fighters were believed to have been gathered.
Daesh-inspired Sawadjaan has been tagged as the mastermind of the Jan. 27 suicide attack on a Roman Catholic cathedral which killed 23 people and injured more than 100.
Lt. Col. Gerald Monfort, spokesman for the army’s 11th Infantry (Alakdan) Division, said that military operations commenced at 6.40 a.m. after the presence of ASG terrorists was confirmed in Barangay Kabbon Takas, Patikul town.
Patikul is located near the provincial capital Jolo, where the bombings of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral took place. Following the deadly attack — allegedly carried out by two Indonesian suicide bombers with the help of local ASG members — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered his military to crush the militant group. The army said Friday’s offensive was part of that directive.
“We have stepped up our tactical offensives against the ASG following the monitored and validated consolidation of the ASG terrorists in the hinterland of Patikul,” said Brig. Gen. Divino Rey Pabayo Jr., commander of the Joint Task Force (JTF) Sulu.
Friday’s military strike was launched before the ASG could carry out whatever terrorist action it was planning, added Pabayo, which he believed to be “something big” based on the number of fighters that had been gathered.
Monfort said the JTF Sulu had been in the area for a few days prior to launching the attack on the hideout. “Radulan Sahiron and Hajan Sawadjaan, the ASG main leaders, were reported to be in the consolidation area planning to launch terror acts,” he added.
The Philippine Army said “selective aerial bombardment” was carried out as the combined ground forces of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) moved in for the final assault.
The AFP’s Western Mindanao Command (WesMinCom) said the result of the bombing raid has yet to be determined as clearing operations were continuing.
Security also remains tight in Jolo to prevent any possible ASG attack aimed at diverting the AFP’s attention away from the intensified military operations.
WesMinCom commander, Lt. Gen. Arnel B. Dela Vega, said pursuit operations were continuously being conducted by JTF Sulu troops. He asked people to pray for the safe return home of soldiers involved in the operations against the ASG militants in Sulu.
Pabayo vowed that JTF Sulu would “never lose focus” in hunting down the terrorists who had been “wreaking havoc” in the region. He said that earlier this week government forces had arrested an ASG “spotter” during a combined operation in Ipil, Zamboanga Sibugay province.
Maldimar Mahmor, a follower of ASG sub-leader Idang Susukan and previously Galib Andang (alias “Commander Robot”), was arrested on March 4. He is tagged in the abduction of the former mayor of Naga, Zamboanga Sibugay, Gemma Adana.
Mahmor also reportedly took part in the 2000 Sipadan kidnappings when ASG militants seized 21 European and Malaysian tourists and Filipino resort workers.
“The arrest of Mahmor is a big loss for the Abu Sayyaf militants because it will disrupt their illegal activities, particularly kidnapping, in our area of operation,” said Col. Bagnus Gaerlan Jr., commander of the 102nd Infantry Brigade.
A .38 revolver, hand grenade, an M-16 magazine, and ammunition for a rocket-propelled grenade, were seized from Mahmor.