AUTHORITIES are looking into the role played by an elderly couple in the operations of the Abu Sayyaf, particularly in Bohol where the bandit group clashed with government forces last week.
Constantino and Crisenta Petalco, who were in their mid-60s, were among the six civilians reported killed in the April 11 clash. They were residents of Bohol and owned the house were the criminals sought refuge upon arrival in the province on the eve of the clash.
The Abu Sayyaf, whose main activity is kidnapping for ransom, operates in Sulu and Basilan. A source last week said the criminals could be targeting foreign delegates attending an event of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The Department of Foreign Affairs, through acting spokesman Robespierre Bolivar, said the Asean-Hong Kong Free Trade meeting which will be held in Panglao Island in Bohol from today to April 22 will push through despite the clash, “unless any new information dictates otherwise.”
He said measures are in place to secure the gathering which will have about 200 confirmed participants.
Bohol Gov. Edgar Chatto assured the Asean delegates the province is safe and that the remnants of the Abu Sayyaf group are contained in the northern part of the province, which is far from the venues for the event.
He said troops from Cebu will augment Bohol security forces to ensure of the safety of the delegates.
Capt. Jojo Mascarenas, civil military operations officer of the Army’s 302nd Brigade, said the investigation led by the PNP seeks to establish the Petalcos’ ties with the Abu Sayyaf and their participation in the encounter.
He said Crisenta is an aunt of Abu Sayyaf member Joselito Melloria, alias Abu Ali, who was also slain in the fighting.
Mascarenas said the couple could have served as the “contact” of the Abu Sayyaf in Bohol. “The Abu Sayyaf would not go to Bohol without a contact... They (couple) slept with the terrorists in the house,” he said.
The military earlier said the Abu Sayyaf members arrived in Bohol on the evening of April 10 to abduct foreign and Filipino tourists. The group was engaged by soldiers in a firefight early morning of April 11.
Officials have said six Abu Sayyaf men were killed, including sub-leader and spokesman Muammar Askali, alias Abu Rami, only to later clarify that two of the fatalities are civilians.
Three soldiers, including a 2Lt. Estelito Saldua, a member of the Philippine Military Academy Class of 2015, and a policeman were killed and another soldier and a policeman were wounded.
Col. Edgard Arevalo, chief of the AFP public affairs office, said the military was “surprised” there were still civilians in the area at the time of the fighting.
“We believed that there are no longer civilians in the area because they already evacuated,” said Arevalo, adding that military operations should be surgical and should only focus on the targeted personalities.
“What is definite is that Abu Sayyaf members were inside, they stayed in that house where the fighting took place. There have been evacuations immediately following the encounter and the AFP is not in a position to know if there were civilians left at that time,” said Arevalo.
Arevalo also said it was too early to conclude if the two civilians were actually coddlers, or they had been held hostage, or they were killed by the Abu Sayyaf on suspicion they informed authorities of the presence of the Abu Sayyaf in Bohol.
Insp. Lyn Abella, public information officer of the Police Regional Office 7, said the Petalcos were among those evacuated before the firefight but returned home to attend to their farm animals.
Abella said they are also looking at other reports that the Petalcos were taken hostage.
She said government troops are still hunting down at least eight Abu Sayyf men who have taken refuge in the northern part of Bohol.
President Duterte visited Saldua’s wake in San Jose, Batangas and awarded him a Gold Cross Medal.
Duterte also handed financial assistance to the family, and a cellular phone with his contact information.
“Kung may kailangan kayo, maski anong problema na hindi ninyo masolusyunan, tawagan ninyo lang ako (If you need anything, any problem that you cannot solve, just call me),” he told Saldua’s parents Gina and Estelito.
Batangas Gov. Hermilando Mandanas also gave scholarships, up to the college level, to Saldua’s three siblings.
Malacañang condemned the Abu Sayyaf’s beheading of Filipino hostage Noel Besconde on April 13.
Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said Malacañang has also sent its sincerest condolences to the bereaved family of the captain of the fishing vessel FB Ramona, who was seized in December last year.
“We strongly condemn this senseless and cold-blooded murder committed during the Holy Week. Local authorities and our security forces are exhausting all means to locate the captain’s remains, as our troops continue to pursue this bandit group and hold them accountable for their crimes,” Abella said.
Armed Forces chief Gen. Eduardo Año said Besconde’s beheading has motivated soldiers more to deliver “lethal blow” to the lawless group.
Expressing his “extreme indignation” against the Abu Sayyaf for the beheading of Noel Besconde, Año vowed that the military establishment will not rest in the ongoing fight against the Abu Sayyaf.
“While the AFP condemns this gruesome murder of this hapless kidnap victim, it all the more drives our soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines to deliver the lethal blow against this band of terrorists and rescue the remaining kidnap victims,” said Año who targets to defeat the Abu Sayyaf within the first half of this year.
Año reiterated his appeal to the people of Sulu, Basilan and other parts of Mindanao to help the military and other security forces “to put a stop to these criminal and evil acts of the ASG.”
Año has directed Brig. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, commander of the military’s Joint Task Force Sulu, to locate the remains of Besconde. “I desire that his body be brought to his mournful family and be accorded a decent burial,” said Año.