Troops killed five gunmen in weekend clashes as they stepped up search-and-rescue operations for Indonesian fishermen snatched by suspected Abu Sayyaf militants and taken to the southern Philippines, officials said.
One marine was slightly injured and four militants killed during a dawn encounter Sunday in the Tawi-Tawi island group where five hostages were believed taken after they were seized in Malaysian waters in eastern Sabah, the military said.
A fifth suspected militant was killed two days earlier after the military received an alert that gunmen were spotted transporting their captives into an area known as an Abu Sayyaf stronghold.
Shortly after the militants’ speedboat was spotted on Friday, the military ordered an air raid.
“According to three witness accounts, it was the same speedboat they used in escaping after carrying out the abduction,” said Maj. Arvin Encinas, regional military spokesman. “There is a big possibility that they were the same group that was seen.”
“Clearing operations were carried out after the air raid was ordered, and troops recovered parts of the destroyed speedboat and recovered the cadaver of one of the Abu Sayyaf gunmen,” Encinas said.
There was no sign of the hostages identified as Arsyad Dahlan, 41, Arizal Kastamiran, 29, La Baa, 32, Riswanto Hayano, 27, and Edi Lawalopo, 53. The militants took eight hostages on Thursday, but released three who reported the kidnapping.
“We were on alert right after the abductions were reported by the Malaysian government,” Encinas said. “That’s why we have intensified monitoring and maritime patrols based on the information that the speedboat utilized was seen.”
Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, commander of Western Mindanao Command, said troops from Marine Battalion Landing Team 6 and the 64th Marine Company clashed with about 10 gunmen on Sunday, killing four of them while the others were able to escape.
The dead militants, members of Abu Sayyaf, were identified as Oyong Maulana, Datu Solon Maulana, Rashida Maulana, and Nhadz Omar by local officials.
The troops recovered weapons along with mobile phones.
The Abu Sayyaf has been involved in crimes including drug trafficking and kidnapping in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia which share a common sea border, according to the general.
The group has been blamed for a spate of kidnappings in recent years where Malaysian and Indonesian sailors and fishermen have been taken hostage. Suspects in previous kidnappings would demand ransom for their release.
In September, three Indonesian fishermen were abducted from their boat off Sabah’s east coast near the border with the Philippines. Last week, Philippine officials announced security forces rescued an one of the fisherman weeks after authorities said he was recaptured by Abu Sayyaf captors while two compatriots were rescued in southern Sulu province.