President Rodrigo Duterte has added additional forces on Jolo island in the southern tip of the Philippines, bringing to 10,000 the number of troops in the region tasked with crushing Abu Sayyaf militants, military officials said Tuesday.
Duterte activated the Army’s 11th Infantry Division to take on the estimated 300 to 500 Abu Sayyaf fighters after giving the militant group an ultimatum to hold peace talks or face defeat.
“If they will stop, I’m willing to go to their place … let’s talk,” Duterte said in a speech delivered in Jolo on Monday, portions of which were provided to media on Tuesday. “I cannot allow my soldiers to be ambushed and killed while I am the commander-in-chief. And this has been going on for the last so many years. We are wasting bullets.”
Duterte’s call for peace talks went against a long-existing government of policy of not negotiating with militants in a region that has a history of terror attacks.
In May 2017, senior Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, the emir of the Islamic State (IS) in the Philippines, led militants in taking over the city of Marawi. He died five months later as the military recaptured the city.
Since then, military officials have said the threat of militancy exploding elsewhere in the south remains high.
In November, a clash between troops and the Abu Sayyaf on Jolo left five soldiers dead and two dozen others wounded. The clash was the biggest in recent months in the restive south, and it forced Duterte to move troop positions in Mindanao.
Gun battles last week killed at least one Marine and several Abu Sayyaf fighters – one day after the legislature approved Duterte’s request to extend martial law in the south until next year.
Abu Sayyaf is one of the most brutal militant groups operating in the southern Philippines. It has been engaged in banditry, kidnapping and bombings.
The group is wanted for beheading hostages, including a German national and two Canadians during the last two years. It was blamed for blowing up a passenger ferry on Manila Bay in 2004, killing more than 100 people.
Once allied with al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah, Abu Sayyaf later forged alliances with IS, through Hapilon.
A faction operating on the nearby island of Basilan in July carried out a bombing that left 10 dead. The IS had claimed responsibility for the attack, saying a Moroccan operative carried it out, but the army discredited the claim and charged several Abu Sayyaf militants.
Previously, military spokesman Brig. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said a new military unit had been created to focus on counter-terrorism operations against the militant group and its sympathizers.
“We cannot always discount the possibility of supporters and sympathizers that continue to lurk in the island. The unit shall be oriented, armed and equipped to address the peculiarity of the enemy, weather and terrain,” Arevalo said.
New Marawi commander
Meanwhile, Col. Romeo Brawner Jr., who led troops in fighting militants in Marawi, assumed the role of commander of the military forces in the area on Tuesday.
He said his job was to focus on defeating stragglers who survived the five-month Marawi battle, and prevent them from recruiting more followers in far-flung, impoverished areas.
“The brigade has contributed to the neutralization of so many members of the Maute ISIS group. Neutralization is not only killing them but would also mean catching them or surrender,” Brawner said, using another acronym for IS.
The Maute group provided manpower and weapons to Hapilon’s group during the Marawi siege.
Brawner acknowledged his promotion comes at a critical time – just a month before the Muslim south, including Marawi, goes to the polls to ratify a Muslim autonomy law signed by Duterte last year. Military intelligence has reported that militant groups opposed to democratic elections could create chaos.
“We will ensure that the environment here will be secured and peaceful so the rehabilitation will go unhampered,” he said.
Brawner, 50, comes from a family with a long history of serving in the Philippine military. His uncle was the commanding general of a brigade once assigned to Marawi.
Mark Navales in Cotabato contributed to this report.