Four members of an elite Army Special Forces unit were killed and seventeen were wounded in intense fighting on the southern Philippine island of Sulu that also left two Abu Sayyaf militants dead, the military said Saturday.
Members of the 6th Special Forces Battalion were conducing combat operations when they clashed with about 40 members of the Abu Sayyaf in a remote village in Patikul town on Friday, officials said.
“The firefight lasted for nearly an hour until the enemy escaped,” military southern command spokesman Maj. Arvin John Encinas said. “Result – we had four KIA and WIA, 17,” he said referring to “killed in action” and “wounded in action.”
The terror group which the government forces encountered belonged to the faction of Abu Sayyaf leader Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, the acknowledged local leader of the Islamic State.
Sawadjaan’s group has been tagged as behind a series of bombings on Jolo last year, including an attack by two Indonesian suicide bombers on the island’s Catholic church that left 23 dead in January 2019.
Encinas said that two of the Abu Sayyaf fighters were also killed, while an undetermined number were likely wounded, based on blood stains along the route used by the enemy side to escape.
Encinas said the fighting took place in terrain that was familiar to the enemy side, giving them an advantage.
“Maybe it just happened during that time the Abu Sayyaf group were on the vantage position. Terrain matters, regardless of what special unit,” Encinas said, stressing that pursuit operations were continuing as of Saturday afternoon.
The slain soldiers had been retrieved, and the wounded brought to a military hospital. Some of the wounded were later airlifted to Zamboanga city for further treatment.
The military has been suffering major casualties against Abu Sayyaf fighters recently. In April, 11 soldiers were killed and 14 others were wounded in the military’s biggest loss in recent years against the Abu Sayyaf.
The fresh casualties occurred the same week Congress finally passed what the military says is a stronger anti-terrorism bill. It will however need the signature of President Rodrigo Duterte before it becomes law. He earlier certified its passage as urgent.
The law is being opposed by rights groups who allege that Duterte could use it clamp down on critics who have questioned his war on drugs.
On Friday, Duterte’s national security chief, Hermogenes Esperon, stressed it was meant to crush the Abu Sayyaf and other terror groups in the south.
“Mindanao has been a victim of terrorism in various iterations,” Esperon said. “Be it through suicide bombings or through the proliferation of Dawlah Islamiya and other extremist groups,” he said, using the local term for the IS.
He said the fact that foreign militants had managed to infiltrate the south “is proof that our present laws have failed to address the problems of modern terrorism.”