Philippine security forces killed a suspected Abu Sayyaf Group militant during a clash on the remote southern island of Jolo, where ASG gunmen had earlier abducted four people, including two policewomen, the military said Thursday.
Three soldiers were wounded in Wednesday’s brief shootout, which broke out when militants fired upon an army unit pursuing suspects in the weekend abductions, according to Brig. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, commander of a military task force in the area.
“We believe the group [that] our Scout Ranger men encountered were those behind the latest abductions,” Sobejana said. Other officials said it could not be immediately determined if the kidnap victims were in the area when the clash occurred.
The abducted officers – junior policewomen Benierose Alvarez and Dina Gumahad – were taken along with two civilians on Sunday near a military camp on Jolo, a jungle-clad area in the southern tip of the archipelago known as an Abu Sayyaf stronghold since the 1990s.
The kidnappers had demanded a ransom of 5 million pesos (about U.S. $96,000) for the release of the captives, authorities said.
President Rodrigo Duterte, who claimed in 2016 that the Abu Sayyaf were not criminals, said he would seek help from Muslim elder Nur Misuari to secure the release of the captives.
“I have two policewomen. I think I have to talk to Misuari personally,” he told reporters Wednesday during a visit to the central city of Cebu.
Misuari leads the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), once the largest Philippine rebel force that signed a peace deal with the government in 1996. He later became a head of an autonomous region in the south.
In 2013, he led his group in a three-week siege of the southern city of Zamboanga, in which at least 180 people were killed. He then went in hiding, but Duterte ordered the suspension of rebellion charges against him.
The MNLF was the main insurgent group in the south, but another faction, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), split from Misuari’s group in 1978 over ideological differences.
The MILF, however, also signed a deal with Manila in 2014, and opted for expanded autonomy. It is now helping the government against other groups, including the Abu Sayyaf and other pro-Islamic State (IS) militants who are known to exist in the south.
The Abu Sayyaf, or Bearers of the Sword, is the most brutal of militant groups operating in the southern Philippines. It has been engaged mostly in banditry, kidnapping and bombings.
One of its leaders, Isnilon Hapilon, later pledged allegiance to the IS and led a brutal siege of the southern city of Marawi in May last year. The city was ruined, with its 200,000 residents displaced, and more than 1,200 people, mostly militants, killed in a battle that ended in October.
Dennis Jay Santos in Davao City, Philippines contributed to this report.