At least 12 Abu Sayyaf militants from a faction that has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State have been killed in a series of gun battles with Philippine forces on the southern island of Jolo, the military said Friday.
The violence comes after a Malaysian hostage died from his wounds Tuesday, days after being rescued. An Indonesian perished during the rescue attempt while another Indonesian man was successfully freed.
Among those slain was Abu Sayyaf sub-leader Julie Ikit, the cousin and top lieutenant of Abu Sayyaf senior leader Radullan Sahiron, officials said.
Acting on intelligence data provided by local residents, troops engaged in a series of gun battles near the town of Patikul on Jolo Thursday with an enemy force numbering over a hundred fighters.
The running firefight lasted for about an hour, and reports from ground troops indicated that the enemy factions were led by Sahiron and Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, the overall leader of the Abu Sayyaf faction in Jolo who is believed to have taken over as the new head of the Islamic State in the Philippines.
The firefight forced the enemy to withdraw “leaving behind one dead terrorist, later identified as Abu Sayyaf sub leader Julie Ikit,” military spokesman Lt. Col. Gerald Monfort said.
Also recovered from the clash site were a pair of night-vision goggles, some 40 makeshift tents and food and water supplies – signs that the Abu Sayyaf militants were highly mobile.
“After the first encounter, the 1st Scout Ranger Battalion was deployed to block the terrorists’ withdrawal,” Monfort said, adding that the soldiers cut off the escaping enemy at a remote area, forcing the gunmen to split into smaller groups going into different directions. “The body of another unidentified ASG member was discovered during a quick search of the area.”
The Rangers then chased one group of the gunmen while the blocking force encountered another splinter group that was escaping.
Intelligence reports from the ground based on radio intercepts said that seven other enemy fighters were killed and up to 19 wounded in the initial clashes. Three more were added to the enemy death toll by Friday evening.
Brigadier Gen. Divino Rey Pabayo, commander of Joint Task Force Sulu, said that the support and cooperation of the local community led to the successful conduct of operations. “The loss of Radullan Sahiron’s second-in-command and the number of ASG casualties during the series of encounters will have a dire effect on the ASG’s morale and will to fight,” he said.
Earlier this week, President Rodrigo Duterte visited the troops on Jolo and vowed that the Abu Sayyaf would be crushed. Sawadjaan is blamed for masterminding a January attack on a Catholic Church in Jolo that killed 23 people. The authorities said that he had worked with Indonesian suicide bombers, an account that the Indonesian government has rejected.
During his trip, Duterte met with top military commanders on the island, where an estimated 10,000 troops have been chasing after the Abu Sayyaf, a mix of bandits and self-styled militants who had pledged allegiance to the IS.
In Manila, Philippine military chief Gen. Benjamin Madrigal hosted his Malaysian counterpart Gen. Zulkifli Zainal Abidin Thursday night as part of bolstering the two armed forces’ anti-terror cooperation dating back to the early 1990s.
“Our countries’ enduring friendship that spans more than six decades of bilateral relations has been instrumental in the various engagements and activities that support our mutual security interests,” Madrigal said.