Government forces killed at least six suspected Abu Sayyaf militants in a gunbattle that also left eight soldiers wounded in the southern Philippines, the military said Thursday.
The clash on Wednesday near Patikul town in Sulu province occurred five days after gunmen led by overall Abu Sayyaf leader Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan killed 11 soldiers and wounded 14 others in a firefight in the same province, officials said.
The brief, but intense firefight on Wednesday lasted for less than an hour, after which the Abu Sayyaf “fled towards different directions under cover of darkness,” Maj. Gen. Corleto Vinluan Jr., chief of the military’s Joint Task Force Sulu, said in an incident report.
Troops recovered three bodies and some of equipment that the gunmen left behind. The three were identified as Guro Khalid, Udal Muhamadar Said and a third only by his alias, Budah.
“Based on reports, three more enemies were killed and many others were wounded,” Vinluan said, bringing the Abu Sayyaf death toll to six.
The eight soldiers wounded in the gunbattle were airlifted to Zamboanga city, where they were treated at a military hospital. They were believed to be out of immediate danger, the general said.
It was not immediately known if the Abu Sayyaf unit they had clashed with included Sawadjaan. Philippine officials have accused him of masterminding a string of bombings on Jolo island last year, including a suicide attack that killed 23 at a church.
Sawadjaan took over the reins of the Abu Sayyaf faction from Isnilon Hapilon, who was killed in the city of Marawi. Hapilon led hundreds of local Islamic State-linked gunmen, backed by Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern militants, in taking over the southern city three years ago. The siege precipitated a five-month battle with government forces in which 1,200 people were killed, most of them militants.
The clash on April 17 that inflicted heavy casualties on the government side, including the deaths of 11 soldiers, was among the biggest in recent years. Troops retaliated and, at the weekend, killed a militant identified as Vikram, a grandson of Radullan Sahiron, the only original leader of the Abu Sayyaf who is still alive, officials said.
Sahiron is believed to be hiding somewhere in Jolo under the protection of Sawadjaan, military intelligence officials said.