Inabanga, Bohol — It was a kind of firefight that residents like Julita Cenabre, in her 60s, never imagined would ever happen in their sleepy town of Inabanga in Bohol, 71 kilometers north of the capital Tagbilaran City.
Yesterday, Cenabre trembled in fear as she held on to her three-month-old granddaughter at the elementary school in Barangay Cawayan, one of the areas that sheltered about 1,200 residents who fled from the running gun battle between government security forces and a band of heavily armed men believed to be Muslim extremists.
She was not used to the exchange of heavy artillery and the sound of bombs exploding as government troopers hunted down about 60 members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) who arrived in this town on board three motor bancas through the Inabanga River, which flows directly to the sea.
Inabanga is about an hour by pumpboat from Cebu City via the port in Barangay Pasil.
Before sunset on Tuesday, nine persons were confirmed dead by the military and nine bombs had been dropped by the Philippine Air Force in Barangay Napo and its neighboring villages in the bid to flush out the lawless elements.
Among those killed were five suspected ASG members, three soldiers and one policeman, according to the joint statement released by Chief Supt. Noli Taliño, head of the Police Regional Office in Central Visayas (PRO-7), and Lieutenant General Oscar Lactao, commander of the Central Command, on Tuesday afternoon.
The statement said the government troopers were also able to recover three M-16 rifles and an M-4 carbine from the ASG members as of 1 p.m. on Tuesday.
The ASG, said to be led by an Abu Rami, entered the town at around noon on Monday, barely 24 hours after PNP chief Director General Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa confirmed a US Embassy travel advisory over the weekend that terror groups were planning to conduct kidnappings in the region, particularly in Cebu and Bohol.
The terror alert came just as Cebu was winding up its hosting of some 300 delegates from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) who attended high-level finance and defense meetings on Mactan Island and in Cebu City.
Another group of delegates from the tourism industry of the 10 Asean-member countries is scheduled to hold a separate meeting in Bohol after the Holy Week as part of the Asean Summit being hosted this year by the Philippines.
Yesterday, taking its cue from the United States, the Australian government also advised its citizens traveling to the Philippines to exercise a “high degree of caution,” citing “high threat of terrorist attack and the high level of crime.”
Although the police and the military suspected the armed men belonged to ASG, some residents in Napo said the group may be part of the Maute group from Mindanao.
Marina Melloria, 51, said her cousin, Joselito, married a woman from Mindanao who is suspected of being a member of the Maute group. Joselito was seen by a resident escorting a group of about 15 heavily armed men on Monday afternoon whom he described as his guests.
“Unsa na man na, dong (Who are they)?” asked Roger Cellan, a resident of Sitio Ylaya, Barangay Napo, when he saw Joselito passing by. “Mga bisita nako (My visitors),” was Joselito’s reply.
Cellan said Joselito told him that they came from Jolo, Sulu, and traveled to Bohol province on board their pumpboats.
Like the other neighbors, Cellan became uneasy with the presence of armed men in their community.
According to Mayor Josephine Jumamoy, Napo residents became suspicious when they noted that the men were heavily armed.
They immediately alerted the police about their presence, who in turn sent a team along with some soldiers to the area.
“We had not experienced this before. We were all scared,” said a resident who declined to be identified.
At least three pumpboats loaded with armed men were seen entering the Inabanga River that leads to Napo River, an interior village about 10 km from the national highway.
Other towns can be accessed through Barangay Napo. These are the municipalities of Danao, Buenavista, Dagohoy and Carmen.
Jose Genosas was hauling sand and gravel from Napo River on Monday afternoon when he noticed three motor bancas passing by. Thinking that these were tourists, he didn’t pay attention until his neighbors started talking about the presence of armed men in Napo.
Children told their parents of men cleaning their long firearms with “bullets as big as corn ears.”
Alarmed, the parents informed their barangay leaders who then tipped off the police who later coordinated with the military.
Joint police and military went to the area past 5 a.m. on Tuesday and were met with heavy gunfire by armed men who were suspected to be ASG members.
According to Captain Jojo Mascarinas, spokesman of the 302 Brigade, there were at least 60 members of the ASG fighting against the government troopers.
The first bomb was dropped by Philippine Air Force at 1:45 p.m. As of 4:40 p.m., nine bombs had been exploded, causing the ground to shake as the residents screamed in fear.
“We were scared of the bombs exploding since morning,” said Marlyn Bautista, 40, a resident of Sitio Luak, Barangay Napo. She joined her neighbors in crossing the river and walking at least 50 meters just to seek shelter in the Cawayan Elementary School.
Frank Baylosis, Inabanga information officer, said in a phone interview that barangay officials went house-to-house to convince residents to “abandon their homes and move to a safer place” on Tuesday morning.
Jumamoy said she and Bohol Gov. Edgar Chatto were monitoring ground activities from their command center which she set up inside the town hall.
Medical personnel and ambulances have also been placed on standby in case of need, she added.
Jumamoy said she is happy with the timely response of government troops.
She said that ASG members who entered Bohol province through the Inabanga River could be headed for the neighboring towns.
“On behalf of the combined forces of the AFP and the PNP in the Visayas Region, we want to congratulate our people in Bohol under the able leadership of Governor Edgar Chatto, and all local chief executives down to the municipal and barangay levels, who made a brave stand to defend themselves against the threat of terrorism,” read the joint PNP-AFP statement.
“The government security forces simply reinforced the vigilance of the Boholanos who organized themselves into a strong force to keep the province safe from any threat group,” it further read.
The joint statement also commended the heroism of the fallen soldiers and policeman.
“Their heroism will forever be engraved in the hearts of our people. Today’s incident showcases how strong we can be if all stakeholders, the law enforcers, the civilian government and the community, act together,” the statement added.
In Cebu, local officials including Gov. Hilario Davide III and mayors Luigi Quisumbing of Mandaue and Tomas Osmeña of Cebu asked police for tightened security in their respective jurisdictions to ensure that fleeing terrorists would not end up in Cebu.
Osmeña also offered a P100,000 reward to those who can provide information about the presence of suspected ASG members in their community. /with CNU intern Adelyn Landiza