TWO Vietnamese held hostage by the notorious Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) were found beheaded early Wednesday morning in Basilan province in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, officials said.
This developed as top defense officials claimed that the “capability of the extremist group has been degraded” owing to the intensified military operations against them in some provinces in Mindanao.
Colonel Juvymax Uy, commander of Joint Task Force Basilan, said the decapitated bodies of Hoang Trung Thong and Hoang Va Hai were found by residents in the village of Tumahubong in Sumisip town, Basilan, a known stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf bandits, at around 5:40 a.m. Wednesday.
The beheaded victims were among the six crewmembers of Vietnamese cargo vessel MV Royal 16 who were seized by the bandits last November off the waters of Basilan.
“The cadavers will be made to undergo forensic exams as coordination with the Vietnamese embassy is also simultaneously done,” Uy said in a statement.
Lieutenant General Carlito Galvez, commander of the Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom), condemned the incident, stressing the Abu Sayyaf “does not represent the true followers of Islam.”
“We grieve as we strongly condemn the barbaric beheading of the (two) kidnap victims in Basilan province. For months now, many sectors in society, including the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the PNP (Philippine National Police) exhausted all efforts to rescue these kidnap victims who are still in the hands of the ASG,” he said.
Captain Jo-ann Petinglay, Westmincom spokesperson, said the Abu Sayyaf bandits are holding three more Vietnamese sailors.
She identified them as Pham Minh Tuan, Do Trung Hieu and Tran Khac Dung.
Last month, troops rescued Hoang Vo, 28, in Sumisip town, Petinglay said.
“Intensive military operations are being conducted by our troops to rescue the three remaining Vietnamese hostages,” she said.
Prior to the beheading of the two Vietnamese hostages, top defense officials, during the “Mindanao Hour” program aired on Monday, claimed the strength of the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan and Sulu provinces “have been weakened” due to ongoing military operations against the bandits.
President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered the armed forces to crush the Abu Sayyaf in six months, with the deadline, according to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, lapsing on July 30 or less than a month from now.
“Hopefully, we can finish the Abu Sayyaf…They have been weakened,” Lorenzana said.
He said that “a lot of Abu Sayyaf members from Basilan and Sulu provinces who came to Marawi City to reinforce the IS-linked Maute Group there have been neutralized.”
Government data showed that at least 336 terrorists have died in the ongoing clashes in Marawi and 84 on the part of state security forces. Thirty-nine civilians were also killed by the terrorists, it said.
Lorenza said the military is still trying to verify the remaining number of Abu Sayyaf bandits in Sulu and Basilan provinces.
Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesperson Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said the military leadership is “very happy with the progress of government troops in the Zambasulta (Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi) area, which is under the jurisdiction of Westmincom.
Padilla said the military operations against the Abu Sayyaf also aim to prevent their kidnapping activities in the high seas.
“Any abduction in the high seas was one of the principal criminal activities that they have been doing and that we wanted to address, something that was a cause of national embarrassment,” Padilla said.
“May I ask you, have you read anything of that sort happening lately? For more than three months, I guess, we have not heard anything,” he added.
“So we have successfully degraded the capability and the capacity of this group to undertake many of these criminal activities that have been undertaken in the high seas,” Padilla said.
He urged the remaining Abu Sayyaf members to surrender and also asked the cooperation of local government units and residents in the area to help the military crush the extremist group.
“It is better for them to lay down their arms and surrender so that they can be transitioned into more productive members of society later on,” Padilla said.
Since January 2017, the Westmincom said that 94 Abu Sayyaf members have been killed during military operations, 66 were arrested, and 98 have surrendered, a total of 258. Some 140 firearms were recovered by the troops, the command said.
“We welcome those who return to the fold of the law and accord them the opportunity to live normal lives, far from what they have been facing before as combatants who engaged the government forces and who fight for extremism to thrive in Mindanao,” said Westmincom’s Galvez.
“Rest assured that with all these operational feats, we will not rest on our laurels and will, instead, continue to work hard and integrate the efforts of our soldiers and our stakeholders in sustaining the internal security in Mindanao and in bringing about the defeat of the Abu Sayyaf,” he added.