Hundreds of families fled their homes Thursday on the southern Philippine island of Jolo as the military intensified its rocket and mortar attacks against positions of Abu Sayyaf militants blamed for twin bombings that killed 21 people at a Catholic cathedral.
Around 5,000 elite soldiers have been mobilized for the operation against the Abu Sayyaf, whom President Rodrigo Duterte has blamed for the Jan. 27 attack that also wounded 111 people.
Troops under the 1st Scout Ranger Battalion clashed with about 20 members of the pro-Islamic State (IS) group early Thursday near Patikul town, the military said.
“Air sorties were conducted and nine rockets and machine-gun fire support were launched against the position of the Abu Sayyaf,” said local army spokesman Col. Gerry Besana.
There were no immediate reports of casualties, and the troops continue to pursue their targets into the surrounding jungles.
Lt. Gen. Arnel dela Vega, the head of the military that covers Jolo, said their operation will continue until all the militants are killed or neutralized.
“Expect that, with the pronouncement of the commander-in-chief, we will intensify our focused military operations to pound down the remaining terrorists and penetrate strongholds of the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu,” Dela Vega said.
Jerome Aladdin Succor Aba, head of Muslim rights group Suara Bangsamoro, said the ongoing air and ground assaults displaced more than 400 families.
“The all-out war order should be approached with caution as full military assault could result to civilian casualties, destruction of properties and massive displacement of residents,” Aba said.
“Previous declarations of all-out war did not conclude with the elimination of the Abu Sayyaf, but with state forces committing abuse of power and flagrant human rights violations,” he said.
The military offensive was carried out on orders of Duterte, who blamed the militants for Sunday’s attack targeting Philippine Catholics. But on Tuesday, citing an intelligence brief, the president disclosed that the attack could have been carried out by “suicide bombers.”
The first bomb detonated during Mass and the second blast followed in a parking lot as soldiers responded. The attack was the most brazen in recent years and came as thousands of troops had been deployed to Jolo to crush the militants.
Two days after the blast, unidentified men lobbed a grenade inside a mosque that killed two Muslim religious leaders in Zamboanga city, about 215 km (134 miles) northeast of Jolo.
SITE Intelligence, a U.S.-based group that monitors online communications among Muslim militant groups, reported that the IS East Asia Province had issued a statement claiming responsibility for the Catholic church explosions.
President Vladimir Putin has expressed his solidarity to President Duterte, who has issued statements leaning towards Russia and China for military assistance as he reconfigures his government’s long-time alliance with the United States.
“I would like to reiterate our readiness to further step up interaction with our Philippine partners in combating the terrorist threat in all its forms and manifestations,” Putin said in his condolences that was posted on his official website Sunday.
Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo welcomed the offer, but stressed that Russia had yet to specify the form of help it would extend.
“Terrorism is a worldwide problem. Hence, all the countries of the world must unite and help each other in fighting it and stopping it,” Panelo said.
The attack, condemned by world leaders, came barely a week after the predominantly Roman Catholic nation ratified a law that granted autonomy to the country’s Muslims in the south.
The law, called Bangsamoro Organic Law, would give the people in parts of the southern Philippines with mostly Muslim residents control over many local government functions, including taxation and education, and would allow Muslim Filipinos to incorporate Sharia law into their justice system.
Investigators clear four suspects
Authorities had earlier tagged four people caught on closed-circuit TV camera as likely suspects. But the four came forward voluntarily on Wednesday and were promptly cleared. They included a teacher and two students.
But while they were cleared, national police chief Oscar Albayalde, said the suspects would still be profiled and their claims validated before they would be completely delisted as suspects in the bombing.
Military goes on full alert in Maguindanao
In the southern province of Maguindanao, security forces were placed on full alert Thursday following intelligence reports indicating that up to 40 foreign militants have entered the region, according to Maj. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, chief of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division.
“The Islamic State-linked Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters operates in these provinces. The group is behind the series of bombings in the region,” Sobejana was quoted by the Philippine News Agency as saying.
The BIFF, with hundreds of fighters, split from the 10,000-member Moro Islamic Liberation Front in 2008. BIFF pledged allegiance to IS, but did not send fighters to Marawi.
Ben Hajan in Zamboanga City, Richel V. Umel in Iligan City and Dennis Jay Santos in Davao City contributed to this report.