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(UPDATE 8 - 7:49 p.m.) MANILA, Philippines - Navy spokesman Lt. Col. Omar Tonsay confirmed reports that soldiers killed by the Abu Sayyaf Group in Sulu on Thursday were beheaded. But he said that only two and not five as reported earlier were decapitated.
"Two of our soldiers were beheaded and two others were hacked to death," Tonsay told reporters Friday afternoon.
Tonsay, however, refused to identify the victims of Thursday's carnage who were servicemen of the Marine Battalion Landing Teams 11, 10, and 5 of Sulu. "The names of the personnel are being withheld pending the turnover of their remains to their families."
Tonsay said the bereaved families were already informed about the death of their loved ones. Acting Flag Officer in Command, Rear Admiral Orwen Cortez, and Marine Commandant Major General Rustico Guerrero are in Headquarters Naval Forces Western Mindanao (HNFWM) in Zamboanga City to personally supervise the interment procedures.
“The remains will initially be brought to HNFWM for traditional interment ceremonies and services before being turned over to their families at Headquarters Phil Marine Corps in Manila on July 31,” Tonsay said.
History of beheadings
This wasn't the first time that the Abu Sayyaf beheaded Marines. In July 2007, during the Arroyo administration, they also decapitated 10 of 14 Marines in Basilan who were about to return to base after a fruitless search for kidnapped Italian priest Giancarlo Bossi.
Several of Abu Sayyaf's hostages were also beheaded by the bandit group.
On May 27, 2001, Guillermo Sobero, a Peruvian-American tourist in Dos Palams, Palawan, was decapitated by the group.
This was followed by the decapitation of two other hostages Sonny Dacquer and Armando Bayona in June 2003.
The next beheading occurred in August 2002 involving two of the six Filipino hostages who were members of the religious group Jehovah's Witnesses.
On May 18, 2009, the Abu Sayyaf also beheaded a 61-year-old man abducted in Basilan. This was followed by the decapitation of a school teacher held in Jolo, Sulu on November 9 of the same year.
'Stern efforts' vs Abu Sayyaf
Because of the "acts of brutality," the Philippine Navy is now motivated to "pursue more stern efforts against" the Al Qaeda-linked group that has carried out killings, kidnappings, bombings, and extortion activities since the early 1990s, according to Tonsay.
In a statement, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin ordered the Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff Eduardo Oban and the Western Mindanao Command to go after those responsible behind the attacks.
Meanwhile, Vice Admiral Alexander Pama said, “It is indeed unfortunate that such incident transpired."
"However, as what had turned out, their sacrifices were not fruitless as the Marines in Sulu have proven that they are coming closer to attaining their goals against terrorism," he added.
According to Tonsay, the soldiers were heading toward their objective at vicinity Tubig Magtuh, Barangay Panglayahan, Patikul, Sulu when they encountered more or less 70 ASG members last July 28 at around 4:20 a.m.
"There were more than 30 casualties on the enemy side with thirteen identified, and more than 6 identified wounded but presumed to be a lot more since pursuit operations is still ongoing,” Tonsay said.
21 other Marines wounded
Twenty-one other Marines were wounded in the ambush, two of them reportedly in critical condition.
The Marines were checking reports that members of the Southeast Asian terror network Jemaah Islamiyah, which has close ties to the ASG, had been sighted in Sulu when they stumbled into the ambush.
When asked to comment on reports that the bodies of the dead soldiers had been desecrated, Marine spokesperson 1st Lieutenant Cherryl Tindog would only say: “Ganun talaga ang mga kalaban natin (That’s how our enemies are).”
Tindog disputed the sources’ account that the dead soldiers were killed in an ambush, saying what happened was a “legitimate encounter” when the Marines chanced on a “nerve center” of the ASG around 5 a.m. Thursday.
"That's why that camp is heavily entrenched, on high ground, because the one they're protecting is a very important person. But no matter how difficult it was to penetrate that camp, our Marines entered,"
The "very important person" she referred to was ASG commander Radulan Sahiron.
And, far from being a debacle, Tindog called the incident a “strategic victory.”
"That's what we consider the good side of the operation yesterday. Although we lost our comrades, it was a strategic victory because we overran the camp," Tindog said.
She said clearing operations are still ongoing at the ASG camp and could not say how many firearms and other equipment had been recovered.
Full military honors
The bodies of the slain troops will be flown to Manila on Sunday and brought to Philippine Marine headquarters in Fort Bonifacio where they will be accorded military honors and a wake held. They will also be given posthumous promotions.
The wounded soldiers will also be promoted.
"Our KIAs (killed-in-action) will be recommended for posthumous Gold Cross medals. Our WIA (wounded-in-action) will be accorded, of course, wounded personnel medals," Tindog said.
The Gold Cross Medal is the third highest combat decoration in the military after the Medal of Valor and Distinguished Conduct Star.
While saddened by the deaths of their seven comrades, Tindog said the loss had not affected the morale of the Marine Corps.
"We are sad because these are our fellow troops. We are sad because we need to sacrifice to the point of death. The ultimate sacrifice ... but that's our sworn duty. The Marine corps, the more we lose comrades, the stronger we become," she said.