MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines army defended its operations on Monday after 18 soldiers were killed and more than 50 wounded in a jungle ambush by militants in the south of the country who have pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
Security experts and some media criticized the handling of Saturday’s encounter with the Abu Sayyaf rebels, which had echoes of a grisly 2011 clash when 19 troops died - some beheaded - and another last year when 44 police commandos were slain.
“It’s deja vu. The government forces underestimated the rebels’ firepower capability and ties with other lawless groups on Basilan,” said security analyst Rommel Banlaoi, referring to the southern island where the clash raged for 10 hours.
Military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla said the troops had been adequately trained and the operation had been well coordinated, but they had been lured into a trap of improvised landmines that could not have been anticipated.
“The situation on the ground is much different from how these armchair generals and analysts saw it. They tend to magnify this unfortunate incident when the army has had many successes.”
Padilla said eight Abu Sayyaf rebel bodies were found on Sunday, bringing to 13 the number of dead on the rebels side, including a Moroccan national.
Describing the incident, he said the military had pounded the Abu Sayyaf camp on the island with bombs and artillery shells before sending in ground troops.
“When they got in there, there were explosions around them, the place was booby-trapped and they were pinned down and the rebels were firing at them at all sides,” he said.
Padilla said that, as well as the army, the government had a role to play in stamping out militancy in the south of the country through development and providing social services.
The small but violent Abu Sayyaf group, which is known for extortion, kidnappings, beheadings and bombings, is one of several brutal Muslim rebel factions in the impoverished south of the largely Christian Philippines.
The group has posted videos on social media sites pledging allegiance to Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, which have attracted foreign fighters from Southeast Asia, the Middle East and North Africa to the troubled southern Philippines.
The army stepped up its offensive against Abu Sayyaf late last year, when President Benigno Aquino ordered troops to hunt down the rebels over the kidnapping and execution of foreign nationals.
The Philippines military has had years of U.S. counter-terrrorism training, although American troops have no direct role in the offensive against Abu Sayyaf.
“It’s not simply a matter of training,” said Ric Jacobson, a U.S. security expert. “If the leadership and preparations are not solid, then these operations are destined for failure, no matter how well-trained the troops.”
The incident has not prompted criticism from candidates vying for the Philippines’ presidency in next month’s election. But a tough talking mayor from a southern city, who has vowed to end corruption and crime, has topped the latest opinion poll and is the front-runner for the May 9 election.
The opinion poll was conducted March 30-April 2, before the fighting on Basilan.
Vice-presidential candidates agreed in a debate on Sunday that there could be no negotiations with Abu Sayyaf and that, while they favor a military solution, poverty and social issues in the south of the country needed to be addressed.
Reporting By Manuel Mogato; Editing by John Chalmers and Raju Gopalakrishnan