Two children were killed after gunmen linked to the Islamic State (IS) attacked a village where soldiers and community elders were meeting in the southern Philippine island of Jolo, the military said Sunday.
The attack Saturday afternoon was the latest deadly assault blamed on the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), four months after the militants allegedly worked with foreign suicide bombers to attack a Catholic Church in Jolo that killed 23.
Those killed were Saiful Abdun, 1, and Jahida Usab, 12, and six ASG gunmen. Five soldiers and two other civilians were wounded, according to the military.
“The death of the two innocent children and the wounding of civilians are indicative of the ASG’s desperate actions of sowing fear among the local populace,” said Brig. Gen. Divino Rey Pabayo Jr., the commander of Joint Task Force Sulu.
The soldiers were meeting with villager elders in the town of Patikul when about 30 ASG rebels attacked the village, triggering 30 minutes of clashes that led to the casualties, the military said.
Pabayo said soldiers were conducting community work as part of their activities to flush out the ASG gunmen. He said the militants were “furious (with) their relatives whom they suspect of collaborating with our soldiers.”
The attack came as the predominantly Muslim Jolo island was observing the holy month of Ramadan.
History of militancy
The ASG is a group of self-styled Islamic militants who have degenerated into banditry. The group is believed to be holding eight captives, including a Dutch national, a Vietnamese, a Malaysian, two Indonesians and three Filipinos, in Jolo.
In January, the ASG allegedly worked with an Indonesian couple to carry out the suicide bombing at the church in Jolo’s capital, which also wounded more than 100 people. Police and military intelligence officials have blamed the ASG for the attack while Indonesian investigators sent to the Philippines discounted the angle of suicide bombers from their country.
Previously, a senior ASG commander, Isnilon Hapilon, was named as the IS leader in the region. He led fighters from Southeast Asia and the Middle East and took over the southern city of Marawi just over two years ago where he had planned to establish a caliphate.
Government troops reclaimed the city five months later after fierce gun battles. Hapilon was among the more than 1,200 rebels, soldiers and civilians killed in Marawi.
With his death, it is believed that the overall leader of the ASG-IS faction is little known, Jolo-based militant Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, who allegedly planned the church bombing, according to officials.
Mark Navales and Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato City, Philippines, contributed to this story.