[STUDENTS The bodies of Philippine Marines killed during a clash with Abu Sayyaf bandits in Sulu are loaded into a military truck for transport to Manila. At least seven soldiers and four bandits were killed. AP]

(INQUIRER) By Julie S. Alipala Inquirer Mindanao - —“We still haven’t learned our lessons,” retired Col. Ariel Querubin, a former superintendent of the Philippine Marine Corps Training Center, said of the killings of seven Marines in a clash with Abu Sayyaf bandits in Patikul, Sulu, on Saturday.

“They were on a test mission, these were students, they may be the best considering they were with the Recon (reconnaissance team), they belonged to the Marines’ elite team but the doctrine of the Recon is basically just to go out there to gather data and they are not there to engage their enemies,” Querubin said Sunday in a phone interview.

Around 20 soldiers on two teams of the Force Reconnaissance Battalion were sent to Tugas, a hilly jungle in Patikul, for the purported test mission that led to the incident in which seven Abu Sayyaf bandits were also killed.

The soldiers, led by 2nd Lt. Alfredo Lorin VI, were on a mission to track down the kidnappers of Casilda Villarasa, wife of Sgt. Faustino Villarasa.

Col. Jose Johriel Cenabre, commander of the 2nd Marine Brigade and head of Joint Task Force Sulu, said the soldiers had a “chance meeting-encounter” with about 50 men in Tugas at around 6:30 a.m. on Saturday.

But Senior Insp. Conrad William Gutierrez, chief of the Patikul police, said the soldiers were on their way to their detachment when “they were ambushed.” Five Marines were killed on the spot and nine others were wounded, he said.

Cenabre, however, denied that what happened was an ambush, insisting that it was a chance encounter.

“Our troops were not able to reposition and retaliate because the engagement was within the civilian area, which is adjacent to a mosque. The attackers took advantage of the civilians, thus making it more difficult for our troops to fire back,” he said.

Before sundown on Saturday, the Marine toll of lives had climbed to seven with the deaths of those wounded. The fatalities included Lorin, 26, a 2011 graduate of the Philippine Military Academy, and Privates First Class Rene Gare, Andres Bogwana, Jay Alasain, Jayson Durante, Roxas Pizarro and Dominador Sabijon Jr.

Wounded were Sgt. Noel Cornelio and Privates First Class Miguel Edwin Maluyo, Roel Aquino, Carlito Sabellita, Cris An Bangalisan, Rajan Gadong, John Ywayan, Joemar Monte and Richard Gomez.

Clash, not ambush

In Manila, Maj. Ramon Zagala, spokesman of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, confirmed Cenabre’s version of the incident.

“It was an encounter and not ambush, as what the early sketchy reports mentioned,” Zagala said in a mobile phone interview.

“It was part of the operations of the Marines to curb the dominance of the Abu Sayyaf in the area,” he told the Inquirer.

Zagala said two Marine companies, numbering about 100 soldiers, were conducting military operations against the local terrorist group when they clashed with a large group of Abu Sayyaf in Barangay (village) Tugas.

Zagala said the Marines suffered a large number of casualties because the Abu Sayyaf fighters had positioned themselves on higher ground. According to him, Tugas is a hilly area, where Khadaffy Janjalani, the bandit leader, was killed in 2006.

Zagala said the losses in Patikul would not hamper military operations against the Abu Sayyaf, which had been crippled over the years with the killings of its leaders.

“The military will continue pursuing the Abu Sayyaf. These are the things that the AFP has to risk in order to have a secure environment. It’s a sad loss but it only shows the resolve the AFP,” he said.

Querubin said in Manila in the telephone interview a test mission was usually given to any specialized elite unit of the military.

“It’s a class which, basically, runs about six months or longer and whatever they learn inside a classroom for that period, they apply it on the ground. Once they have completed the test mission, they automatically graduate and become part of the regular forces of the Recon Battalion,” he said.

Every battalion sends its best soldiers to be part of the Recon team. “They were trained, passed the screening for special skills like scuba diving and more. They are like superheroes, intelligent. These are the chosen ones,” Querubin said.

But unlike the Special Forces and Scout Rangers, the Recon Units are not allowed to engage their enemies, he added.

“They are there to gather data and pass the data to the operating troops. The problem with the senior officers, they always look up to the elite forces as supermen. Definitely these units will never say no because they belong to elite forces,” Querubin said.

The retired Marine colonel, whose son is also a Marine officer based in Sulu, said it was too early to judge claims of lapses in Saturday’s operation.

“They will not experience five killed in action on the spot and many wounded if they were not ambushed. Definitely, it was a surprise attack and the troops later engaged the attackers,” he said.

Querubin cited the “test mission” involving Marines in which five junior officers were killed in Silangkum village, Ungkaya Pukan town, in August 2007.

“After that, when the doctrine on Recon was strictly followed, there were no more casualties when there were test missions,” he said.

Troops hunt bandits

The Associated Press said Sunday troops backed by assault helicopters were hunting down the fleeing bandits, who were believed to be led by Jul-Aswan Sawadjaan, an Abu Sayyaf commander accused in the kidnappings of a Jordanian journalist and two European bird watchers who were still being held captive.

One of Sawadjaan’s sons and a minor Abu Sayyaf commander are believed to have been killed in the firefight, Cenabre said.

The firefight was part of a new military offensive that started last week and was aimed at rescuing the three foreign captives, who were abducted last year, along with three Filipinos kidnapped separately by the militants in recent weeks, he said.

Although a large number of Marines and policemen are involved in the offensive, only small units have been deployed to hunt down the Abu Sayyaf in two jungle encampments in Sulu, Cenabre said without providing details. US forces were providing intelligence but were not involved in actual combat, he said.

Security forces, meanwhile, killed one of two gunmen who were trying to extort money on Saturday from a restaurant in Sulu’s capital town of Jolo, Cenabre said.

Armed with pistols, the two men shot it out with government forces. One was shot in the head and died and the other was captured, Cenabre said.

He said investigators were trying to determine whether the two had ties with the Abu Sayyaf, which was also notorious for extortion.—With reports from Marlon Ramos in Manila and AP

PH pursues militants as death toll hits 14 Agence France-Presse 7:21 pm | Sunday, May 26th, 2013

MANILA, Philippines — The confirmed death toll from fighting between Philippine troops and Al-Qaeda linked extremists rose to 14 on Sunday as troops pursued the militants, a military spokesman said.

Soldiers were pressing on with their hunt for the Abu Sayyaf group a day after a bloody clash on the remote southern island of Jolo, said Brigadier General Domingo Tutaan.

Two more Abu Sayyaf fighters were found dead, adding to the five militants and seven marines reported killed in the first day of fighting, he told AFP.

“After the firefight, a scouring operation was conducted and a pursuit operation was launched,” he said, adding that was how they found the new fatalities.

The marines were hunting down Abu Sayyaf members believed responsible for a spate of abductions of local residents including a marine’s wife when the clash broke out, Tutaan said.

Although there were no new clashes on Sunday, Tutaan said helicopter gunships were now on standby, ready to reinforce the troops if they should encounter the Abu Sayyaf again.

The Abu Sayyaf, funded using seed money from Al-Qaeda in the 1990s, is blamed for the country’s worst terror attacks, including the firebombing of a ferry in Manila Bay and kidnappings of foreign tourists.

The group is on the US government’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.

About 600 US troops have been rotating through the southern Philippines for a decade to help train local troops in hunting the Abu Sayyaf, who enjoy local support at their bases in some of the poorest areas of the Philippines.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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