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ANGER AND SADNESS: VAT 69 commandos relive the nightmare of seeing their comrades get killed
LAHAD DATU: It was 3am and pitch dark on the heavily fortified beach we were on after a long, eventful day.
The previous day, security forces had launched a massive attack on Kampung Tanduo where terrorists from Sulu had been holed up since Feb 12.
The fear was that they could have broken through the security cordon and entered nearby villages.
Most of the security personnel around us had their eyes glued to their night vision binoculars sweeping the waters ahead and the vast area behind us.
Our discussion on what we were planning to do later in the morning was interrupted by a security personnel who walked up from behind unnoticed.
We stood up and turned his way, answering his “salam” that greeted us.
The personnel, whom from then on we addressed as “Abang” asked us what we were doing there.
Our conversation revealed what many had wanted to know about what had happened on March 1, when the country was rocked by news that two security personnel he referred to as “brothers”, were killed by the terrorists in an ambush.
Before us stood the commando who was tasked with maintaining the security cordon around Kampung Tanduo under Ops Sulu (now codenamed Ops Daulat).
Initially, it seemed impossible to get Abang, whose face was weather-beaten and weary, to open up to us. He was not convinced we were journalists until we showed him our press credentials.
It was clear to us then that as much as he didn’t want to, as he had no authority to talk to civilians, he wanted to defend his fellow comrades who had been accused by some quarters as being part of a staged “drama”.
Abang was one of roughly 40 VAT 69 commandos deployed in the first of three front lines to tighten the security cordon.
VAT 69 is the main force. The second line is the police elite strike force, followed by the general operations force.
That morning, in a six-layer “U” formation, the VAT 69 team started inching closer into the terrorists’ hideout in the village that was located several hundred metres from the shore. Metres ahead of them was an incline.
As they moved further in, personnel in the first line, which included fallen heroes Assistant Su perintendent Zulkifli Mamat, 29, and Sergeant Sabarudin Daud, 46, stopped in their tracks.
All personnel behind them, also stopped. They were suddenly face to face with several terrorists who had been hiding in a chest-deep ditch which was camouflaged with dried palm leaves.
“They all suddenly stood up and both sides had weapons trained at each other. Our brothers in front were training their M-16s down at the terrorists... there were several seconds of silence.
“We had instructions not to shoot on sight as our mission was to seek and capture.
“During this stand-off, which lasted a few seconds, we noticed more of them behind a slope, just behind the ditch.
“It was in that few seconds when their snipers from the slope shot our two brothers in the head,” he said, anger and sadness evident in his eyes.
Heavy exchange of gunfire ensued, and the commandos killed 12 terrorists.
Abang said when the shooting stopped, his team did not pursue the terrorists as they were uncertain of the enemies’ strength and numbers.
“I saw it all from where I was. I saw a glimpse of his face as he fell back after being hit... it killed me,” he said, referring to one of his men who was shot. Abang then turned and walked away.
As we, too, turned to walk back to our base, we were approached by another personnel who had earlier passed us by as we were talking to Abang.
This VAT 69 commando, who wanted to be identified only as Agus, was also part of Abang’s team.
Pointing towards Abang, who by then had almost disappeared into the night, Agus said: “He’s very affected by Tuan Zulkifli’s death. He saw him being shot in the head. He could not do anything but continued shooting at the enemy, even as Tuan Zulkifli’s lifeless body brushed against his leg after hitting the ground”.
Agus said the team had, for several mornings, been moving further into the village, setting up camps as they advanced.
On that fateful morning’s mission, Agus was positioned in the third row.
“When one of my brothers was shot in the leg during the shoot- out, my comrades in the fourth row pulled him further back.
“He was bleeding so heavily that I had to crouch to stop the bleeding with my left hand while I held my M-16 with my right hand, support ing the buttstock with my right knee, for about half an hour.
“All this while the rest of us continued firing towards the ditch and slope, until the enemy retreated,” he said.
At this point, another personnel who was standing close by joined us. His eyes were glistening with tears of anger when he told us how he felt with regard to the accusations that the Kampung Tanduo ambush was a political ploy. His demeanour changed.
It was difficult for both of us to hold back our emotions when this six-foot commando, whose face was thick in grime, cried as he told us this: “It is something that will haunt you forever, seeing the lifeless bodies of your comrades mutilated. Imagine holding a family member whose body had been mutilated, in your arms.
“One of them was my former squad member, who had a full life ahead of him,” said the personnel who was assigned to the water village in Kampung Seri Jaya, Simunul in Semporna, to retrieve the bodies of six personnel killed there during an ambush last Sat urday.
In the two separate ambushes, eight members of the security forces were killed.