Philippines unsure if top rebel leader dead
Army unable to confirm if US-backed airstrike killed top leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, a day after saying he was dead.
Last Modified: 03 Feb 2012 08:44
Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as Marwan, was said to have been killed in a US-backed airstrike [Reuters]

The remains of a top leader of the regional Jemaah Islamiyah group have not been found, the Philippine military said, a day after announcing that he had been killed in a US-backed airstrike.

Troops on the ground were still combing the jungle camp, hit on Thursday, for the body of Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as Marwan, said regional military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Randolph Cabangbang on Friday.

Military officials said at least 15 people were killed in the dawn strike on a camp on remote southern Jolo Island, including two other high-level leaders. A military spokesman in Manila, Colonel Marcelo Burgos, initially reported that Marwan was among them.

Marwan's death would mark a major success in disrupting a network blamed for some of the most spectacular bombing attacks in Southeast Asia in recent years.

But if the initial report proves incorrect, it would turn a largely successful strike into at least a partial embarrassment for the Philippine military, while burnishing the reputation of the elusive fighter.

Multi-million reward

The US has offered a $5m reward for the capture of Marwan, a US-trained engineer accused of involvement in deadly bombings in the Philippines and in the training of other fighters.

Cabangbang, who is based in southern Zamboanga city, from where the bomber planes in Thursday's strike took off, said that the military's announcement of Marwan's killing was based on information provided by informants.

He refused to elaborate, saying it would compromise their intelligence assets.

"We are still searching. Our troops are still there," Cabangbang said.

He suggested that the blast could have obliterated Marwan's body, saying the process of verification linked to the possible disbursement of the reward money to informants will be "more tedious" and could include DNA testing.

Two Philippine security officials with knowledge of the airstrike who spoke to the AP news agency also said Marwan's body was not found, though bombs shattered the house where he was believed to have been.

One of the officials confirmed the deaths of the other two other high-level leaders: Umbra Jumdail, who led the Philippines-based Abu Sayyaf group, and a Singaporean leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, Abdullah Ali, who used the name Muawiyah.

The other official confirmed only the death of Jumdail, also known as Dr Abu Pula, and his son.

Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk to reporters.

Cabangbang said the decision to announce the killings, including that of Marwan, was made by the chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, General Jessie Dellosa, after he was briefed by commanders.

"There are details that we cannot divulge because of operational security," he said when pressed for details.

US-backed offensives

A US official in Washington confirmed the strike on Jolo Island, an impoverished region 600 miles south of Manila, and said the Pentagon provided assistance in what it termed one of the region's most successful anti-terrorism operations in years.

The strike debilitated a regional network that has relied on the restive southern Philippines, sometimes called Southeast Asia's Afghanistan, as a headquarters for planning bombings and a base for training and recruitment.

About 30 fighters were at the camp near Parang town on Jolo, the stronghold of Abu Sayyaf and their allies from the mostly Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiyah, when it was bombarded by two OV10 aircraft dropping 227kg bombs at 3 am, regional military commander Major General Noel Coballes said.

"Our report is there were at least 15 killed, including their three leadership," he said. "This is a deliberate, fully planned attack coming from our forces."

The rest of the fighters escaped and no one was captured, Coballes said. 

Counterterrorism troops from the US have helped ill-equipped Filipino troops track Marwan for years using satellite and drone surveillance.

About 600 US special forces troops have been deployed in the southern Philippines since 2002, providing crucial support for the country's counterterrorism operations.

Offensives launched by the two countries have been credited for the capture and killing of hundreds of Abu Sayyaf fighters and most top leaders since the 1990s.

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