By Aaron Recuenco
Hundreds of families were forced to flee their homes in Patikul town of Sulu after the military launched offensive operations against the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) following the Sunday morning Jolo Cathedral blast that left 21 people dead and more than 100 others, mostly churchgoers, wounded.
Myrna Jo Henry, information officer of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), said the evacuees from two barangays of Patikul town sought refuge in safer areas for fear of being caught in crossfire between government forces and the Abu Sayyaf fighters.
“Based on the report that we received, there are currently 350 families that were displaced. These are already being attended to,” said Henry.
After President Duterte declared an all-out war against the Abu Sayyaf following the church attack, the military launched two airstrikes in possible lairs of the extremist group in the jungles of Patikul town.
The Abu Sayyaf was tagged as responsible for the twin blasts that hit the Mount Carmel Cathedral in Jolo while mass was being offered on Sunday morning.
Ground operations, backed by heavy artillery, were also initiated.
Sulu was lockdown after the twin blasts as authorities try to seal off all the escape routes of those responsible in the bombings.
On Wednesday, four persons of interest who were caught in the closed-circuit television (CCTV) turned themselves in to authorities. They were cleared Thursday after they aired their side regarding the incident.
“They were already removed from the list of persons of interest. They went to the police and gave testimonies proving that they had nothing to do with the bombing,” said Senior Supt. Bernard Banac, spokesman of the Philippine National Police (PNP).
“Upon verification, it was found that they were telling the truth,” he added.
But Banac said the pursuit operations continue against a certain Kamah who was tagged as responsible for the bomb attack. Kamah was able to escape when authorities raided his lair.
Kamah is the logistics officer of the Abu Sayyaf and the suspect behind the bomb attacks on the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Jolo town on January 27.
Lieutenant General Arnel Dela Vega, the commander of the Western Mindanao Command, said military forces are pursuing Kamah and the rest of the militants, who are now hiding from the government troops.
“Expect that, with the pronouncement of the Commander-in-Chief, we will intensify our focused military operations to pound down the remaining terrorists and penetrate strongholds of the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu,” Dela Vega said.
Last Tuesday, government forces neutralized an Abu Sayyaf militant in an intense gunfight with the Ajang-Ajang group in Patikul, Sulu.
AFP Western Mindanao Command spokesman Col. Gerry Besana said Ommal Usop was slain in the combined operations launched by military and police forces at the residence of Kamah, a member of the Ajang-Ajang group, in Barangay Latih at 5:40 p.m. Tuesday.
Usop resisted arrest, prompting the military and police to return fire.
Government troops also seized a .45 caliber pistol, five rounds of ammunition, and a sniper scope.
Banac confirmed that the joint special investigation group is eyeing suicide bombing during the Cathedral blast.
“Based on the investigation, there was no crater found in the blast site so this angle is being pursued. So it is possible but the investigation continues,” said Banac.
President Duterte had earlier announced that the Cathedral blast was perpetrated by suicide bombers, to which Banac said they recognize since the President has a wide network of intelligence.
Part of the investigation, according to Banac, is the conduct of necessary scientific investigation to look into the initial reports that a foreigner might have carried out the suicide bombing attack. (With a report from Francis T. Wakefield)