MANILA, Philippines - The military said it has captured 3 "lawless elements" after conducting air strikes in Payao town, Zamboanga Sibugay on Monday.
Speaking to ANC, Western Mindanao Command spokesman Lt. Col. Randy Cabangbang said the 3 captured lawless elements are members of the group of Moro Islamic Liberation Front leader Waning Abdulsalam. The 3 are now in the custody of the local police.
He said 2 soldiers were killed in the latest operation after a firefight with "lawless elements" in Payao. He said 6 "lawless elements" were reported killed and 40 others wounded in the military offensive.
The military spokesman said the air strike was not directed at the MILF but Abdulsalam who is reportedly behind the kidnapping of a priest and 3 teachers in Zamboanga Sibugay.
"Kasama ito sa all-out war against lawless elements. This has nothing to do with the MILF organization. Wala ito sa areas of temporary stay at walang MILF community sa tabi. This is marshland and we have seen na meron silang machine gun nets and fortified positions. This is where they took Fr. (Giancarlo) Bossi and they bring their kidnap victims here. It's very difficult terrain for us," he said.
Cabangbang said the military may conduct more air strikes in Zamboanga Sibugay after Monday's offensive.
He said the military and police have existing arrest warrants for Abdulsalam and his men. He said the Armed Forces has sent a naval blockade in the area and stationed troops in nearby barangays to prevent Abdulsalam's group from escaping.
He also noted that the MILF might disown Abdulsalam because he has been involved in so many crimes.
"Napakarami nang kaso nito. I guess they are thinking na i-disown na lang. Maybe they might disown him because he has so many cases. He is destroying the image of the MILF...We can actually call on him to surrender but in this situation, he has already dug in with firearms. I doubt that he will surrender," he said.
Law enforcement operation
Meanwhile, Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office Secretary Ricky Carandang said the air strike in Zamboanga Sibugay is strictly a law enforcement operation.
"We are going after people charged with murder, extortion, kidnapping. It has nothing to do with the ongoing peace process. Ipinaalam na natin sa MILF na ito ang giagawa natin," he said.
He added that the military has not yet started military operations in Basilan because the situation there is more complicated. Nineteen soldiers were killed in a clash with MILF forces in Al-Barka town last week.
Army spokesman Major Harold Cabunoc earlier said 2 OV-10 attack planes bombed a remote village on the edge of Payao town to weed out 100 heavily armed bandits holed up in their bunkers and running trenches.
After the air raids, ground troops fired artillery rounds allowing a combined contingent of about 200 police and army commandos to slowly enter the area.
There were no immediate reports of any civilian casualties. About 3,000 residents fled the area last week, according to officials.
No all-out war
President Benigno Aquino rejected calls for an "all-out war" against the MILF, and said intensified military and police operations were tactically focused to capture only those behind atrocities.
He said the MILF leadership were informed that the targets of Monday's assault were not covered by the ceasefire, and warned other guerrilla units not to join in the battle.
"Those who will get in the way of our forces in the pursuit of their legitimate operations cannot be differentiated from those whom we are after," he said.
Aquino said the bombardment in Payao was in response to appeals by villagers to capture the gunmen.
"Our forces have effectively isolated them," he said.
Aquino called on the MILF leadership to demonstrate good will and help authorities round up the "lawless elements" so peace talks could move forward.
While the MILF has dropped its independence bid in favour of autonomy, the talks are currently deadlocked and the ceasefire is often marred by violence.
More than 30 years of fighting have claimed about 150,000 lives and stunted efforts to develop the mineral-rich southern region. With Agence France-Presse