Suspected Abu Sayyaf militants have seized the 10-year-old son of a senior government official in the southern Philippine island of Jolo, the military said Friday, days after the U.S. and British governments issued fresh security alerts for the restive south.
Heavily armed men waylaid a private vehicle that was to take the boy, Zaire Khan Pasil, and his older sister to the Catholic-run Notre Dame elementary school on Thursday, regional army spokesman Lt. Col. Gerry Besana said.
The driver, Aldasir Tallow, and sister were left unharmed as the men escaped with the boy, he said.
Besana said the gunmen, believed to be members of Abu Sayyaf, immediately fled aboard motorcycles.
“There’s an ongoing operation handled by the police. The perpetrators were last seen heading toward the nearby town of Patikul,” Besana said, referring to a town bordered by near impenetrable jungles and a known lair of the gunmen.
Senior Supt. Pablo Labra, the provincial police commander, said the victim is the son of a Department of Interior official and local government chief in Jolo. No ransom demand has yet been relayed.
Founded in the 1990s by an Afghan-trained Islamic firebrand, the Abu Sayyaf is notorious for kidnappings, bombings and beheadings over the past two decades. It claims to fight for the establishment of an independent Islamic state in the predominantly Catholic Philippines, although the military and police have described the gunmen as a criminal organization.
The group is believed to be holding 12 hostages, including three Indonesians and seven Filipinos. Members beheaded a German and two Canadians over the last two years after they failed to pay millions of dollars in ransom.
The U.S. State Department earlier designated the Abu Sayyaf as a terrorist organization affiliated with the Islamic State (IS), after one of its commanders, Isnilon Hapilon, last year led a five-month siege in the southern city of Marawi that left 1,200 dead.
Hapilon, one of the senior leaders of the Abu Sayyaf, had pledged allegiance to the IS, and he led a group of fighters that included militants from Southeast Asia and the Middle East in the battle of Marawi.
He and a top aide were killed in October last year, effectively ending the crisis, although 10 months later, thousands of residents still remain in evacuation camps as the government struggles to rebuild the city.
While the Marawi crisis has officially been declared over, dozens of militants have escaped to other areas in the south and have reportedly been trying to recruit more fighters. The entire south remains under martial law, allowing the authorities wide latitude in implementing security measures.
More than two weeks ago, 11 people were killed when a suspected suicide bomber drove a van packed with explosives through a checkpoint in Basilan.
The military was quick to point the finger at the Abu Sayyaf, although the Islamic State later claimed the attack and said a Moroccan militant was behind it. A Filipino Muslim cleric who claimed to have facilitated the entry of foreign militants to Basilan has also been arrested.
The Philippine defense establishment however remains divided on the identity of the bomber, even as some officials were willing to accept the foreign militant angle.
Earlier this week, Britain and the United States warned citizens of "heightened risk from kidnapping" in the country, particularly in tourist destinations such as Palawan, a famed beach destination.
They said kidnap-for-ransom groups from Jolo might have already entered the area. The embassies however did not disclose how they received the information.
"If in the area, you should follow the advice of local security and remain vigilant at all times," the British government said in its updated travel advisory.
"There’s been an increase in kidnapping of foreign nationals, including attacks targeting foreigners and tourists since late 2015. Terrorist groups continue to plan kidnap operations against western nationals in the Philippines," it said.
The U.S. Embassy in Manila, in its August 14 updated warning, asked its citizens to be vigilant and to review their personal security plans due to threats circulating on probable kidnapping.
The local military “remains on heightened alert and continues to tighten its security posture in Palawan against all forms of threats, amidst circulating information on probable kidnapping in the Province,” the travel warning read.