Marawi battle gives Westmincom toughest year

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THE military experienced 2017 as the toughest year with the onslaught of violent extremism that led to the five-month battle with Islamic State-inspired terrorists in Marawi City.

But the year 2017 also gave the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) the upper hand in neutralizing members of the different armed groups under its area of responsibility. The command oversees half of Mindanao’s military operations.

In its annual report, the Westmincom reported that the command has neutralized more than 1,500 terrorists.

“This is the most significant accomplishment,” Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr., Westmincom chief, said adding the number is so far the biggest achievement in recent years.

Most of the terrorists were killed during the gun battle in Marawi City accounting to 995 deaths of combined Abu Sayyaf bandits and Daesh-inspired Maute group members.

“This is the only period that we were able to neutralize largest number of terrorists, including key significant figures, within the five month stretch of the Marawi siege,” Galvez said.

The five-month long battle ended when government snipers killed the leaders behind the Marawi siege–Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon and the Maute brothers, Oman and Abdullah.

Hapilon was recognized as the emir of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Southeast Asia.

Galvez said the death of the top leaders coupled with the relentless offensive against the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in the provinces of Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi have diminished the capability of the terror group to launch another major attacks.

“There is a significant headway in terms of degrading the capabilities of the terror group,” he said.

“Now, we can say, we have prevented them from establishing a wilayat (Arabic term of state),” he said.

“The real battle is after the battle in Marawi. The challenge right now is to correct the wrong narrative that these terror groups are propagating,” said Galvez.

“We are now collaborating with the ulamas, sultanates, and other traditional leaders to counter idea of violent extremism,” he said.

Brig. Gen. Arnel Dela Vega, commander of the Central Mindanao-based Army’s 6th Infantry Division, said efforts to prevent violent extremism is to beef-up intelligence operations because the remaining members of the ISIS-influenced group are trying to regroup and recruit new members.

Brig. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, Joint Task Force Sulu commander, said the year 2017 also resulted to the surrender of 45 ASG members in Sulu.

In Basilan, 72 have surrendered to the government while 21 yielded in the province of Tawi-Tawi.

“Relentless operations continue to free the remaining kidnapped victims,” Sobejana disclosed.

There are still nine people being held hostage by the ASG. They included a Dutch, five Indonesians and three Filipinos.

The troops have killed 127 ASG members in separate combat operations following the order of President Rodrigo Duterte to crush the bandits in the three island provinces.

The troops have also apprehended 90 ASG members in separate areas here in Western Mindanao.

The Westmincom reported that the kidnappings perpetrated by the ASG have also declined from 23 in 2016 to 12 cases this year.

There were only 77 recorded ASG-initiated violent incidents this year from 123 last year.

The Philippine Navy through the Naval Forces Western Mindanao (NFWM), in partnership with the Navies of Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia, have intensified security in the high seas.

Rear Adm. Rene Medina, NFWM commander, said the joint patrols by the three countries have significantly helped reduced hijacking incidents.

“We expect more joint patrols in Western Mindanao next year,” Medina said.

“We believed we’re able to prevent them (ASG) to cross to Tawi-Tawi. We were able to prevent them to occupy areas such as islets, which they previously held,” Galvez added.

Galvez said they are putting more premium on how to address the underlying factors that breeds terrorism by initiating non-military approaches.

“Addressing the root causes of the conflict is primordial. Such as governance in concern areas,” he said. p: wjg

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