Government forces captured five suspected Islamic State-linked militants working under Abu Sayyaf bomb expert Mundi Sawadjaan during an operation this week in southern Sulu province, Philippine military authorities reported.
Intelligence information placed Sawadjaan in a heavily populated area called Bus-bus near downtown Jolo, the provincial capital, on Tuesday. Troops from the 35th Infantry Battalion and local police were dispatched to capture him, but he slipped through the security cordon, said Maj. Gen. Corleto Vinluan, the local army task force commander.
“Five supporters of Mundi Sawadjaan were captured,” he said. “Troops were acting on a report received about the presence of Sawadjaan roaming around in Bus-bus accompanied by an armed group.”
Vinluan identified those captured as brothers Alsamer Kasim, 26, Sulmeser Kasim, 22, and Kasmer Kasim, 18, along with Kerwin Asjada, 25, and Denrasher Ahadan Avestruz, 18. The troops also seized high-caliber firearms.
Sawadjaan is a relative of senior Abu Sayyaf leader Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, the acknowledged leader of the Islamic State in the Philippines. Authorities have said Hatib Sawadjaan was the mastermind of the bombing of a Catholic church in Jolo in January 2019 that left 23 dead, including two Indonesian suicide bombers.
Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, the chief of Western Mindanao Command, praised efforts by members of the Joint Task Force Sulu, the Metro Jolo Inter-Agency Task Group and residents for the capture, according to the state-run Philippine News Agency (PNA).
“This is a clear manifestation that if we work together, we will surely reap better results. Rest assured that we will never stop supporting other law enforcement agencies in all their endeavors,” Sobejana told PNA, adding the suspects were turned over to police in Jolo.
The arrests follow clashes last month that killed five soldiers and at least 16 Abu Sayyaf militants in the southern region.
Members of the 32nd Infantry Battalion were on the trail of Abu Sayyaf members in a remote jungle on Sulu island on July 31 when they were attacked by other militants. Three soldiers and at least six Abu Sayyaf fighters were killed, but only three of the militants’ corpses were recovered after their comrades removed the others from the battle scene, Vinluan said.
Two days earlier, two soldiers and at least 10 suspected militants were killed during a gun battle in Maguindanao province, the southern Philippines, as troops hunted for a senior leader of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a different militant group linked to IS. At least 13 soldiers were injured.
Meanwhile, at least six suspected communist guerrillas, a government soldier and a bystander were killed during an Aug. 8 gun battle in the northern Philippines, according to military officials. In addition, five soldiers from the army’s 702nd Infantry Brigade were injured in the clash with members of the New People’s Army (NPA) on the main Philippine island of Luzon.
The clash was the deadliest between government forces and suspected members of the NPA – the military wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines – since June 18, when a military unit killed five guerrillas during a shootout on Negros Island in the central Philippines.