Philippine troops killed at least three suspected militants during a firefight with more than two dozen heavily armed members of the Abu Sayyaf Group at the weekend on southern Jolo Island, the military said on Monday.
On the government side two soldiers were wounded in the clash in the jungles near Patikul town on Jolo, one of the islands that make up Sulu province, a general said.
Troops from the 6th Special Forces Battalion launched the mission against a group led by Abu Sayyaf commander Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan before midnight on Saturday, Brig. Gen. Antonio Nafarrete, a local army commander, told reporters.
“The firefight lasted for 35 minutes that left several casualties from the terror group, [which] was forced to retreat,” said Nafarrete, who oversaw the Special Forces operation.
Sawadjaan became leader of the Philippine branch of the Islamic State extremist group after Isnilon Hapilon was killed near the end of fighting that broke a five-month siege of southern Marawi city by pro-IS militants in 2017. Sawadjaan is believed to have masterminded deadly attacks on Jolo, including last year’s twin bombings by an Indonesian couple that left 23 people dead at a local church.
Nafarrete did not say if Sawadjaan was spotted during the weekend encounter. He said the militants scattered and vanished into the thick forest cover.
Army scout rangers, as well as elements of the infantry’s mechanized battalion, provided additional support as they overran the militants’ temporary encampment, Nafarrete said.
At the scene security forces recovered a 90 mm recoilless rifle, a portable anti-tank weapon, as well as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), Nafarrete said.
Three Abu Sayyaf fighters were later reported to have died in the clash, while an undetermined number of others were believed wounded, he said, citing reports from forces operating in the area.
The military had earlier vowed to crush the Abu Sayyaf by the end of March, but officials said their priorities had changed because the government was overwhelmed with having to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.