Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Manila Pledges To Flush Out Abu Sayyaf Rebels From Hideouts

The Philippines military is confident it can flush out Abu Sayyaf guerrillas from forest hideouts but says the insurgents might try to bomb cities as the tide turns against them. Marines Brigadier-General Juancho Sabban said that a year-long campaign to gain the trust of the Tausug people on the southern island of Jolo, the heartland of Abu Sayyaf, had been rewarded with information about the group’s bases. “So far, the big and decisive battle has not yet happened but with the support of the local people it is inevitable,” Sabban said in an interview. “In our assessment they are on the run.” Sabban said military raids were forcing Abu Sayyaf cells to scatter to remote parts of Jolo and keep on the move. “Any organisation that is dying needs to be resuscitated by conducting terrorist activities,” he said. “We are applying pressure here. So, they will try and plan a bombing in Davao or Manila or Zamboanga but our security forces are aware of this.The Marines chief was speaking at a one-day clinic held by US and Philippine military medics for local people in the town of Luuk on Jolo, 900km south of Manila. Manila is fighting insurgencies by communist rebels and several Muslim groups which have killed more than 160,000 people since the late 1960s. The government is holding talks with the largest Islamic insurgent group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and has said it expects to sign a peace deal this year. Abu Sayyaf, the smallest but most ruthless of the four Muslim rebel organisations, works and trains with Jemaah Islamiah, al Qaeda’s franchise in Asia, in remote southern locations like Jolo. Since the 9/11 attacks, the United States has helped the Phlippines hunt Abu Sayyaf and stop its islands being used as sanctuaries for militant groups.The Philippines constitution bars foreign troops from going into combat on its territory but several hundred US military advisers and trainers are deployed at any one time in the southern region to help local units. Washington is also pouring millions of dollars into humanitarian works in places like Jolo, where bitter memories of atrocities by American colonial forces a century ago still linger. The money helps the Philippines military to build schools, roads and wells, boosting the threadbare local economy and helping to win villagers over. Sabban says the joint effort has borne fruit in Jolo, where fierce battles between the army and rebels displaced tens of thousands of people last year. Abu Sayyaf, believed to number about 400, bombed a karaoke stall and a shop on Jolo this year, and the group is blamed for the Philippines’ worst such attack, an explosion of a ferry in February 2004 that killed more than 100 people. Before the ferry attack, the group was notorious for kidnapping and beheading Filipino and foreign tourists.