MAGUINDANAO VILLAGERS FLEE IN FEAR OF ABU SAYYAF

CAMP SIONGCO, MAGUINDANAO, January 24, 2004 (STAR) By John Unson - More than a thousand villagers have fled their homes for fear of a repeat of Wednesday’s hostilities in three adjoining coastal barangays in North Upi, Maguindanao, precipitated by an attempt by seafaring Abu Sayyaf gunmen to land in their seaside communities.

Upi’s Vice Mayor, Abdullah Salik, said residents of Barangay Sedem, Laguitan and Meti have fled to neutral ground, apprehensive of possible retaliations by the Abu Sayyaf rebels who were promptly driven away by government forces before they could land on the beaches of the municipality.

"Concerned agencies are now attending to these evacuees. Health workers are now helping rehabilitate them," Salik said.

Salik said 1,689 civilians were displaced in the encounters.

Soldiers killed four Abu Sayyaf members and wounded seven others in the ensuing firefights, the military said.

Major Onting Alon, acting spokesman of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, said their intelligence units are now verifying the feedback from local religious and political leaders that the gunmen were led by Abu Sayyaf chieftain Khadaffy Janjalani.

"We have also been receiving persistent feedback that Abdurakman Bedis, a close aide of Janjalani, was among the armed men who tried to land there," Alon said.

Police and military investigators said the rebels could have come from somewhere in the Zamboanga peninsula or from the island province of Sulu.

The Abu Sayyaf gunmen, on board three motorized bancas, first tried to land in Laguitan, North Upi, but balked at beaching their watercraft after soldiers and militiamen opened fire.

Another firefight ensued when the rebels, hours later, attempted to land in a nearby barangay, triggering a brief gunbattle.

Village leaders in the adjoining Barangays Laguitan, Sinipak and Meti, all in North Upi, have confirmed that four Abu Sayyaf members, two of them still adolescents, were killed while seven of their Tausog-speaking companions were wounded in the firefights.

Alon said the wounded Abu Sayyaf members were brought by their companions to Barangay Licoon in nearby Lebak town of Sultan Kudarat.

"Intelligence operatives have been sent there to validate the information that the wounded gunmen were being treated by their companions in a coastal village there," Alon told The Star.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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