By DJ Yap and Julie Alipala
It was the work of barbarians.
That was how a Navy officer described the beheading of five out of seven Marines killed in fierce fighting with the Abu Sayyaf bandits in a Sulu jungle Thursday.
President Benigno Aquino III condemned the beheadings.
"Mark my words: To those of you who perpetrated this atrocity, know that you are now No. 1 on my radar. It might take some time, but make no mistake about it: you will be brought to justice to answer for your crimes," Mr. Aquino said in a statement in Manila.
Twenty-five other Marines were wounded in the clash while intelligence reports said about 20 of the bandits were slain in the battle that lasted four hours.
"One of the severed heads has yet to be recovered," a Marine officer overseeing the embalming of the bodies at St. Peter's Chapel here told the Inquirer Friday.
The officer, who asked not to be identified for lack of authority to speak to the media, said the sight of the slain soldiers reminded him of a similar outrage in Basilan province in 2007, where 10 Marines were also beheaded by the Abu Sayyaf.
To dehumanize troops
Those decapitated in Thursday's clash included a 2nd lieutenant, a sergeant, and three privates first class.
The head of one of the privates first class remains missing, the officer said.
"This is a barbaric act," said Commodore Armando Guzman, Naval Forces Western Mindanao commander. "This is the saddest part. Explaining to their families how it happened. It's not easy on our part." Colonel Daniel Lucero, commander of the Army's 103rd Infantry Brigade based in Lanao who spent time in Basilan before, said it was not unusual for the Abu Sayyaf to mutilate fallen soldiers.
"They behead soldiers to dehumanize our troops," Lucero said, citing at least two incidents during his Basilan stint.
Dr. Nilo Barandino, a physician based in Basilan who has conducted post-mortem examinations on many slain soldiers, said that based on his recollection, there were at least 70 soldiers mutilated or beheaded in the province since 1980.
While the latest beheading and mutilation had added to the pains of the military, Guzman said they found solace in that "the Philippine Navy and the Marines have achieved strategic victory in its fight against the Abu Sayyaf Group in Sulu."
"Yes we got one big loss but still we see this as a strategic victory. We were able to drive them away. Now, they are scattered," he said.
Soldiers under the Marine Battalion Landing Team 11 were operating in Panglahayan village in Patikul town when they stumbled on an Abu Sayyaf enclave manned by about 70 gunmen under commanders Isnilon Hapilon and Radulan Sahiron.
Marine Corps Commandant Lieutenant General Rustico Guerrero said there was victory in the debacle. "We were able to overrun one of the major strongholds of the Abu Sayyaf Group," he said in a speech before Marine soldiers here.
Colonel Eugenio Mislang, chief of the Camp Navarro Hospital where some of the wounded soldiers were brought, said "intelligence reports indicated that the Marines killed 20 Abu Sayyaf." "(We got) 13 names but no body count because the bandits carried their dead and wounded away," he said.
Guzman said the manhunt against the bandits was continuing.
The Marine officer interviewed by the Inquirer said the embalmers assigned to fix the cadavers had a hard time doing their job because of the extent of the mutilation.
"Some of them were hacked beyond recognition," he said.