Inabanga, Bohol — A top military official yesterday declared that Bohol “is now the safest place on earth” after a successful government siege here that led to the death of six Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) members, including the man believed to be a key leader of the Islamic militant group.
Top officials of the Armed Forces of the Philippines Central Command (AFP Centcom) and the Police Regional Office in Central Visayas (PRO-7) said in a joint briefing Wednesday that one of the ASG fatalities could be Muamar Askali, alias Abu Rami.
Abu Rami was blamed for the beheading of German national Jurgen Kantner, who was kidnapped by the extremist group in November last year and was held in Jolo until he was beheaded last February after failing to pay a ransom; and of Canadians John Ridsdel and Robert Hall, who were also beheaded in April and June last year, respectively, after the ASG failed to get the ransom they demanded.
The ASG team led by Abu Rami was apparently attempting another kidnapping mission in the Central Visayas region, according to AFP chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Año, who was speaking in Manila.
Año told The Associated Press that troops have recovered and identified the remains of Abu Rami at the scene of the battle in a far-flung coastal village on Bohol Island, where five other Abu Sayyaf gunmen were also killed, along with three soldiers and one policeman.
Año said troops took the picture of the slain Abu Rami and that captured Abu Sayyaf militants identified their young militant leader.
“This is a major blow to the Abu Sayyaf,” Año told The AP. “If they have further plans to kidnap innocent people somewhere, they will now have to think twice.”
Major Gen. Oscar Lactao, Centcom commander, said the military was looking into several circumstances on how Abu Rami and his men arrived in Inabanga, Bohol as clearing operations continued.
After declaring they had successfully repelled the ASG’s attempt to make a foothold on Bohol Island, Lactao said they were now hunting down the remaining ASG members who had survived the government siege on their lair in Barangay Napo, Inabanga.
Chief Supt. Noli Taliño, director of PRO-7, however, told a news conference in Cebu on Wednesday that they had yet to verify if indeed the body belonged to Abu Rami.
“A comparison shall be made. Let us wait for the result to be sure. The body looks like Abu Rami but we just want to be certain,” said Taliño on Wednesday.
Lactao said the AFP would conduct a DNA test to verify if the slain militant was indeed Abu Rami.
Taliño said the five remaining fighters had fled after an overnight siege in Sitio Ylaya, Barangay Napo and nearby villages.
Among those being hunted down was Boholano Joselito Melloria, a native of Barangay Napo, who brought the at least 10 armed men (not 60 as earlier reported by the AFP) on board three motor bancas to the village on Monday afternoon.
Police officials were also checking if the lone woman killed in the firefight was the wife of Melloria, said to be a Muslim woman who was the daughter of an Abu Sayyaf leader.
The firefight also left three soldiers and one policeman dead. The soldiers were 2Lt. Estelito Saldua Jr., Cpl. Meljun Cajaban, Sgt. John Dexter Duero; and SPO2 Rey Anthony Nazareno, a member of the Special Weapons and Tactics from Calape, Bohol.
Another soldier, Cpl. Chris Jude Borlas, was wounded and now recuperating at the Tubigon hospital.
The return of Melloria
According to authorities, Melloria left Barangay Napo several years back when he married a woman who turned out to be a daughter of an Abu Sayyaf leader.
Residents were shocked to see Melloria returning to Napo with a group of armed men whom he brought to his house, Taliño said.
Taliño admitted they could not exactly say how many armed men were able to get into Napo. But based on accounts of residents, he added, there were at least 10 men on board three pump boats.
Following the firefight, soldiers found the house of Melloria empty. They also found nearby a camp that the militant group tried to set up in Barangay Napo. The camp was composed of five structures.
Also in the areas were three holes that were dug by the bandit group so they could seek shelter during air strikes.
But Taliño and Lactao did not think that the Abu Sayyaf members were trying to set up a base in the remote village, which is located 10 kilometers from the national highway but is accessible to nearby towns.
Lactao admitted though that the group came from Jolo, Sulu and sailed on board their fast boats to Inabanga, apparently to conduct terror activities in nearby provinces.
But he defended the AFP from criticisms that the armed men were able to go to Napo undetected, saying the authorities were able to thwart the group from launching any terror attack.
Taliño said they have yet to determine what made the Abu Sayyaf go to Napo even as he acknowledged that the Islamic militants could be planning to conduct kidnapping and bombings in nearby areas like Mactan Island in Cebu and Panglao Island in Bohol.
The two islands are near Inabanga and are teeming with tourists who go there for their pristine white sand beaches.
‘Safest place on earth’
Taliño and Lactao assured that Inabanga and the rest of Bohol are now safe from the bandit group.
“Bohol is the safest place on earth now,” said Lactao.
After the Scene of the Crime Operatives were done processing the bodies, the more than 3,000 residents who fled their homes at the height of the firefight could now go back.
Still, Bohol Gov. Edgar Chatto said security forces in the province would still be on heightened alert and security measures had been put in place especially that some Abu Sayyaf members were still being hunted down.
He added that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Summit Meetings in Panglao town on April 18 to 22 would go on as scheduled.
“This is an important part of Bohol’s history. We never experienced like this that some forces from outside come to Bohol to create trouble. The Boholanos are one in praying and hoping for peace. And of course, we are vigilant,” said Chatto./With INQ, AP