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Editorial

Troubled holidays

/ 01:08 AM January 02, 2016

Cheery holidays are no inoculation against the stubborn, savage realities of terrorism and insurgency. Even as the Christmas season has engendered a respite—temporary, no doubt, but welcome nonetheless—in the ugly, unseemly verbal fireworks among the country’s declared presidential candidates and their devoted camps, down south hostilities of a bloodier kind are at their full throttle, and the body count is growing.

For the past weeks, the Armed Forces of the Philippines has been conducting an intensified campaign against the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf in the jungles of Basilan and Jolo islands. The operations have resulted in some big victories: Last Dec. 21, the military announced it had overrun and taken over the Abu Sayyaf’s main camp in Basilan after heavy fighting that left 26 dead among the insurgents, including their Malaysian leader Mohammad Najib Hussein, or Abu Anas. The victory was as much tactical as psychological; not only was the group deprived of a leader, they were also stripped of an extensive, well-provisioned base; according to military officials, the 30,000-sqm camp in Al-Barka was large enough to host 28 structures that could shelter about 250 people.

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But the campaign is also not without cost to the AFP, which has seen its own casualty tally climb up, and with the battles not confined to one area or incident. Three government troops died and 13 others were injured in a clash reported last Dec. 16. Of the 300 soldiers that took part in the seven-day battle to capture the Al-Barka camp, 26 were said to have sustained injuries, 12 from an explosion inside the camp. Two Marines were also killed early this week when their detachment in Talipao town was attacked by the Abu Sayyaf. The latest dispatch says a fresh clash in Sulu has left one soldier dead and seven others injured, in the aftermath of a “focused military operation” against some 100 Abu Sayyaf terrorists under one Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan. The operation led to an hour and a half of intense gun battle in Patikul, Sulu.

Delicate factors, other than purely military might, are in play in this campaign. The Abu Sayyaf currently holds captive four victims it had kidnapped in September from a resort in Samal Island, Davao—two Canadian nationals, a Norwegian and a Filipino woman. Last year, it also abducted two Germans that were then released after the group said they were ransomed for P250 million. For the current hostages, the asking price is $60 million.

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After the military launched artillery attacks against the group in the wake of the kidnapping, a video surfaced in October showing the emaciated hostages pleading with the Philippine government and their own governments to secure their release by ceasing the attacks, negotiating with the hostage-takers and paying the ransom—a demand the government has rejected. No doubt, the lives of the hostages are at greater risk now, with their Abu Sayyaf captors on the run, scattered by the continuing military offensive. Already weakened and traumatized by their months-long ordeal, they are presumably subjected to even more difficulties as they are yanked to and fro by desperate armed men whose main thought now is to escape the military dragnet.

They are the latest unfortunate victims of a brutal terrorist group that stubbornly persists in Mindanao, despite the enormous resources and hardware thrown at it by the Philippine government, with help from the Americans at that.

The Abu Sayyaf is a splinter group of a long-festering insurgency in parts of Mindanao that has radicalized generations of Muslim youth over four decades and reaped a horrific toll now estimated at 150,000 dead, with the affected areas among the chronically most miserable in the country—a situation that has no end in sight as the prospects for peace wax and wane with each new change of administration in Malacañang.

The proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) under President Aquino is but the most recent attempt by a sitting Philippine administration to resolve these historic troubles—an offshoot of an agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the biggest insurgent group remaining. Lamentably, the BBL has precious few chances of passing now, with the Mamasapano bloodbath having broadly set back the peace process, and the ensuing political uproar—some of it hysterical and opportunistic—all but poisoning the discourse for any comprehensive negotiated peace in Mindanao. And so, in whatever season, Filipino blood continues to spill…

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TAGS: Abu Sayyaf, AFP, Basilan, casualty, Editorial, Jolo, opinion, terror, terrorism, terrorist
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