We perish because we know not… #TLENews
More than 30 Philippines police commandos have been killed trying to capture South-east Asia’s top Islamist terrorist, who was involved in planning the 2002 Bali bombings.
Malaysian-born Zulkifli Abdhir, one of the US’s most wanted persons with a $US5 million bounty on his head, is believed to have been killed or wounded in the botched operation in a lawless region of the southern Philippines.
Zulkifli’s death would be a severe blow to Islamist militants responsible for a series of deadly bombings in the Philippines and a recruitment drive for the so-called Islamic State group.
The elusive militant, also known as Marwan, was wrongly reported to have been killed in an air strike on a rebel base on the densely forested Philippines island of Jolo in 2012.
But he later emerged as a key figure in the ruthless Abu Sayyaf group that has carried out bombings, assassinations and extortion since 1991 under the guise of fighting for an independent Islamic region in the Philippines.
Zulkifli is believed to have been tutored by bombmaking expert Azahari Husin, the so-called “Demolition Man” of the Jemaah Islamiah terrorist group who was killed in Indonesia in 2005.
A former associate of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan who was trained as a communications engineer in the United States, Zulkifli was a member of the Jemaah Islamiah central command at the time the group carried out the Bali bombing that left 202 people dead, including 88 Australians.
Fluent in English, Bahasa Malaysia, Tagalog and Arabic, he is suspected of having links to Islamist terror groups across the world. Since 2003 he has been living with members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Maguindanao province, 960 kilometres south of Manila.
The 11,000-strong MILF signed a peace deal with the Philippines government last year and forged a ceasefire which has been safeguarded by a Malaysian-led team of foreign truce monitors.
But a fierce firefight erupted early on Sunday, when dozens of police commandos hunting Zulkifli encountered insurgents in corn fields near a village several kilometres from a main road. Witnesses said the bodies of more than 30 police were scattered at the battle scene. “What they described to me was gruesome,” said Tahirudin Ampatuan, a local town mayor.
Villagers said the police became trapped and ran out of bullets. Six insurgents are believed to have been killed and 11 wounded. Only five police bodies have been recovered as gunfire continued to ring out across the area on Monday, villagers said.
MILF leaders blamed police for failing to co-ordinate with the group about the operation to capture Zulkifli and another wanted terrorist, Abdul Basit Usman, who has a $US1 million bounty on his head.
Maguindanao is the region ruled for years by the powerful Ampatuan clan that was responsible for the massacre of 58 people, including 32 media workers, on November 23, 2009. Backed by the government in Manila, the Ampatuans were considered a counter-force to the Muslim insurgency that has left 150,000 people dead and helped stunt development in the Philippines’ poorest region.
Philippine Interior Minister Mar Roxas confirmed the police commanders were hunting a “high-value target” but said he hoped the operation would not affect the peace agreement with the MILF. The Philippine Star on Monday quoted an unnamed source saying that Zulkifli headed a Jemaah Islamiah sleeper cell that was activated to assassinate Pope Francis during his visit to the Philippines last week.
Large crowds prevented bombers getting near the Pope, the source said.
Sydney Morning Herald