Philippine Military Says More Abu Sayyaf Fighters Surrender

Mark Navales
2017.06.22
Cotabato, Philippines
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170622-ABU-620.jpg Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon (second from left) listens as other extremist militants discuss their plans to attack the southern Philippine city of Marawi in this screengrab taken from a video released by the Philippine Army, June 18, 2017.
Handout/Philippine Army/AFP

The Philippine military on Thursday said 11 Abu Sayyaf militants surrendered in the southern island of Basilan, where troops have been involved in ongoing combat with the rebels since last year.

Officials said the arrests could cripple the Abu Sayyaf’s ability to reinforce comrades who are engaged in gun battles with security forces in Marawi, a city in the southern Mindanao region where the Islamic State-inspired extremists have been fighting with government forces over the past four weeks.

One of those who gave up on Wednesday was identified as Ibrahim Malat Sulayman, an Abu Sayyaf sub-leader known for leading attacks in Basilan, a jungle-clad island in the south where the militant group was formed in the early 1990s.

“With the continuing pressure employed by the troops on the ground, we are confident that more Abu Sayyaf members will be compelled to cross the line,” Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez, chief of the military’s Western Mindanao Command, told reporters.

“This feat will convince us even more to intensify our offensives against the remaining fighters,” he said.

Galvez said since January, about 100 Abu Sayyaf members have surrendered to troops in the region. Most of them gave up in Basilan, while the rest were from the nearby islands of Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Zamboanga City.

“This is by far a breakthrough, having so much surrendered hard-core ASG members in just a short span of time,” Galvez said. “We will continue to put pressure until the last bandit will be taken down.”

Leading the militants in Marawi is Isnilon Hapilon, an Abu Sayyaf leader from the Basilan faction and the acknowledged leader of the Islamic State (IS) in the Philippines, Asia’s only predominantly Catholic country.

On Thursday, the security command in the eastern part of Sabah in Malaysia placed Hapilon and Abdullah Maute, leader of IS Lanao group, among 18 most wanted criminals who might enter the region from Marawi as a result of incessant airstrikes by the Philippine military.

Officials of the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) said they have been alerted that the duo could flee Marawi and potentially use Sabah either as a transit point or a hiding place.

Fighting in Marawi erupted on May 23 when Hapilon and his men – backed by fighters from Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia – thwarted the Philippine government’s attempt to arrest him. The militants burned buildings and held an undetermined number of hostages, including a Catholic priest.

As of Thursday, officials said the fighting has killed 276 militants, 67 soldiers and policemen and 26 civilians.

“Since the offensive in Marawi city, we are worried they will enter our country under the guise of being illegal immigrants or fishermen,” ESSCOM chief Wan Abdul Bari Wan Abdul Khalid said in a statement.

Because of the short distance between Malaysia and the southern Philippines, many Filipinos from the Mindanao islands migrated to Sabah during the 1970s to escape the armed conflict between government forces and secessionist guerrillas.

About 800,000 Filipinos live in Sabah, which has a population of more than 3.5 million.

For years, ASG has been kidnapping and holding hostages for ransom and executing some of them. In February, the group released a video showing the beheading of a German hostage, Jurgen Kantner, after a deadline for a U.S. $600,000 (2.6 million ringgit) ransom passed.

Last year, ASG militants were blamed for attacks on ships in waters between Borneo island from the southern Philippines that resulted in abductions of dozens of Indonesian and Malaysian sailors. Many have since been released unharmed.

After a year of delays, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines on Monday launched joint security patrols in waters between the three countries.

Officials from the three nations began exploring the possibility of joint patrols in May 2016 after a rash of maritime kidnappings in the Sulu Sea slowed trade and reportedly reaped millions of dollars in ransom for Mindanao-based militants, including the Abu Sayyaf group.

Colin Forsythe in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, contributed to this report.

170622-ABU-620-finalbotoom.jpg

This partial list of wanted men released by the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) on Thursday includes Isnilon Hapilon (fifth from left, top row) and Abdullah Maute (fifth from left, bottom row). [Courtesy of ESSCOM]

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