Government forces killed 37 militants including three Indonesians and a Malaysian while capturing a southern jungle camp of an extremist band linked with the Islamic State (IS) group, the Philippine military’s chief of staff said Tuesday.
The military also said it had contained a threat from Abu Sayyaf Group militants in the country’s central Visayas region, two weeks after ASG gunmen ventured north of their traditional southern strongholds and engaged soldiers in deadly gun battles on Bohol island.
In the southern province of Lanao del Sur on Monday, operations by government forces hit members of the Maute band hard with aerial and artillery fire, said Gen. Eduardo Ano, the military chief of staff. The band is among less than a dozen armed Muslim groups in the southern Philippines that are known to have sworn allegiance to Middle East-based IS.
“We inflicted about 37 enemies killed; 14 have been identified and 23 still unidentified, with three Indonesians and one Malaysian,” Ano told reporters in Manila.
Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padila announced Tuesday that troops, backed by airplanes and helicopters, successfully overran the militant camp in Lanao del Sur, which he described as a large training base for militants, during two days of heavy bombardment that began Saturday.
“We conducted a series of operations using assets from the Philippine Air Force to bomb targets ensuring that no collateral damage will happen,” Padilla told reporters. “These surgical strikes occurred early morning of Saturday and went on to happen up to yesterday afternoon.”
Ano did not identify the slain Malaysian and Indonesians, but said they were formerly with the Southeast Asian regional terrorist network Jemaah Islamiyah.
Officials in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur could not immediately confirm the identities of the suspected foreign militants who were killed in the fighting on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Ano said their deaths were confirmed by intelligence sources and through eyewitness accounts.
The series of clashes came within two weeks before Manila was to host an annual meeting of leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), where one of the likely topics on the table is regional anti-terrorism cooperation.
On Saturday, four suspected militants were killed in gun battles on the central island of Bohol. Among the suspects killed in running shootouts in the area was a man identified as Joselito Melloria who, military intelligence operatives said, was an Islam convert who joined the Abu Sayyaf shortly after marrying a Muslim woman.
And among suspects arrested in Bohol on Sunday was a policewoman, Supt. Maria Christina Nobleza, and an Abu Sayyaf member named Renierlo Dongon. Nobleza, who was not allowed to talk to the press, apparently was Dongon's lover and the two were supposedly in Bohol to assist their comrades.
The incidents over the weekend happened days after a senior Abu Sayyaf leader, Muamar Askali (alias Abu Rami), and four of his men were slain by troops in an intense gun battle in Bohol, a popular destination for tourists and holiday goers in the central region that is famed for its beaches.
Military officials said Abu Rami was gunned own as he led an ASG raid into the area, as part of an alleged plot to kidnap tourists from the island. An army lieutenant and three others, including a policeman, died in the clash on April 11, the first time the Abu Sayyaf, or “Bearers of the Sword,” had infiltrated the island.
Abu Rami's Abu Sayyaf faction allegedly played a hand in the kidnappings and beheadings of foreign hostages, including 70-year-old German yachtsman Jürgen Kantner in February and two Canadians seized last year.
“The Armed Forces and the Philippine National Police [are] happy to inform you that the threats we faced in the island of Bohol ... and the other confirmed reports regarding dangers posed by terrorists in our tourist areas is already addressed,” Padilla told reporters.
“And with the events that unfolded beginning Holy Week up to the last encounters last Saturday, we are confident that we have adequately addressed them,” Padilla said.
Padilla said that the military had been gaining ground in the southern provinces of Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi, forcing the militants to send surrender feelers, including from Radullan Sahiron, an Abu Sayyaf militant who has a $1 million reward on his head offered by the U.S. government.
Known as a one-armed bandit, Sahiron was one of the original Abu Sayyaf commanders who led the group in a series of abductions, including of two Americans in 2001.
The Abu Sayyaf, once believed to be affiliated with al-Qaeda, has recently declared allegiance to the Islamic State. It burst onto the international scene in the early 2000s when it kidnapped dozens of foreign and local tourists, ransoming them off for millions of dollars.
Abu Sayyaf is considered one of Southeast Asia’s most brutal militant groups, frequently showing videotaped beheadings of its captives via the Internet. It was also blamed for a 2004 bombing of a ferry on Manila Bay that killed more than 100 in the worst terrorist attack in the Philippines.
Richel Umel and Mark Navales in Mindanao, Philippines, contributed to this report.