Five Abu Sayyaf members were killed and two soldiers were wounded in a before-dawn clash on Wednesday in the southern Philippine province of Zamboanga Sibugay where troops have been pursuing a band of militants for four days.
Brig. Gen. Leonel Nicolas, the commander of 102nd Brigade, said the encounter occurred at about 2 a.m. in R.T. Lim town, when elite Navy commandos caught up with 15 militants led by Furuji Indama, who is wanted for the 2001 kidnapping of 20 vacationers from Dos Palmas island.
Intelligence reports said the group, which landed on the shores of Zamboanga on Sunday, was on a mission to scout for bombing targets or new kidnap-for-ransom victims.
“We have five initially killed from the enemy side and pursuit continued against this terror group who retreated toward the mangrove area after the initial assault by the troops,” Nicolas said. “We are employing available assets by air and sea. We will not stop this [offensive].”
Nicolas said the two wounded soldiers were airlifted to a military hospital and were out of danger by Wednesday evening. A 15-year-old civilian who was injured in the crossfire is also safe.
On Sunday, the Indama-led group clashed with troops after arriving in Zamboanga. One militant was killed and three civilians were wounded.
Nicolas said the remaining militants could try to escape back to Basilan, an island province considered to be one of the group’s two strongholds of the group.
Plan to escalate terror attacks?
Indama is a leader of an Abu Sayyaf unit in Basilan that has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS). He is also wanted for his alleged role a 2018 suicide bombing at a military checkpoint that killed 11 people on the island province.
Last month, two suicide explosions in the southern Jolo island killed 15, including two female suicide bombers, and wounded scores more. The Aug. 24 bombings were the first this year in the restive southern region by suspected Abu Sayyaf members and the deadliest since a twin suicide attack targeted a church in Jolo in January 2019.
Mundi Sawadjaan, the militant suspected of plotting the Jolo attack, is a nephew of Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, the leader of the Philippine branch of IS who took over after the death of Isnilon Hapilon in October 2017. Hapilon led militants aligned with IS in laying siege to the southern city of Marawi in 2017. Indama was Hapilon’s deputy in Basilan.
Following the August attack, President Rodrigo Duterte vowed to eradicate the Abu Sayyaf militants responsible.
“As a Filipino, I am giving all my support you need to accomplish your mission here in Jolo,” Duterte told soldiers. “I commit myself to work with you, my dear troops, to ensure that these terrorists will have no future in this country.”
Mark Navales and Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato, Philippines, and Richel V. Umel in Iligan City, Philippines, contributed to this report.