Updated at 3:20 p.m. ET on 2017-07-05
Philippine troops have recovered two decapitated bodies believed to be those of Vietnamese hostages held captive by the Abu Sayyaf militants in the southern island of Basilan since November, military officials said Wednesday.
The severed heads were found next to the corpses, officials said. The grisly discovery came on the 44th day of a government offensive to dislodge members of the Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group in the city of Marawi, some 300 km (187 miles) northeast of Basilan.
“The bodies were found at 5:40 in the morning by a member of the local populace,” said Col. Juvymax Uy, commander of the Joint Task Force Basilan.
“The cadavers will be made to undergo forensic exams as coordination with the Vietnamese Embassy is also simultaneously done,” he said.
Uy said the bodies were identified as Hoang Thong and Hoang Va Hai. The two were among six Vietnamese crew members of the MV Royal 16 cargo vessel who were abducted in November by Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) gunmen off Basilan, a stronghold of the militants.
One of the six, 28-year-old Hoang Vo, was rescued by the Philippine Army after soldiers overran an Abu Sayyaf position last month. Three other Vietnamese are among 22 people, including citizens of The Netherlands, Indonesia and Japan, who are still being held captive by extremists in Basilan and in the jungles of nearby Jolo island, officials said.
Vietnam said it was trying to verify reports of the beheadings from Philippine officials.
“Vietnam strongly condemns all acts of kidnapping and inhumane murder,” Le Thi Thu Hang, Vietnam’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, said in a statement Wednesday. "Such actions must be punished appropriately.”
Philippine regional military chief Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez also condemned the beheadings and vowed to step up offensives to recover the remaining hostages.
“(The military) commiserates with the bereaved family and friends of the slain victims,” he said. “In no way does the Abu Sayyaf Group represent our Muslim brothers who are true followers of the Islam.”
Operations were ongoing to recover three other hostages in Basilan, Galvez said, but did not elaborate.
Engaged in banditry, kidnappings
The Abu Sayyaf, or Bearers of the Sword, is the most brutal of militant groups operating in the southern Philippines. It was formed in the 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network but has mostly been engaged in banditry and kidnappings, including of Indonesian and Malaysian crew members of commercial ships sailing in area waters.
In February, the gunmen beheaded German yachtsman Jurgen Kantner after his government failed to pay a ransom equivalent to U.S. $600,000 demanded by the gunmen. Two Canadian hostages suffered the same fate last year.
ASG gunmen have also carried out some of the Philippines’ biggest terrorist attacks, including the 2004 bombing of a passenger ferry that killed more than 100.
The group is believed to number in the few hundreds and is divided in several factions, one of which is led by Isnilon Hapilon, who has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS).
Hapilon managed to escape troops in Basilan early this year, and last month connected with militants led by members of the Maute family in Marawi.
Military officials said Hapilon, backed by several Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern fighters, plotted the takeover of Marawi, a Muslim trading hub of 200,000 people.
The takeover triggered vicious gun battles since May 23 and forced President Rodrigo Duterte to place the entire southern region under martial law.
Duterte had also sought the assistance of the United States and Australia, who are providing intelligence assistance by flying spy planes over Marawi, which has been emptied by its residents with bombing runs and intense fighting reducing parts of the city to rubble.
The military said the gunmen were still in control of several villages, where the militants are holding dozens of people as hostages. Hundreds of other residents remain trapped in the war zone, officials said.
The fighting has killed 343 militants, 85 security forces and 39 civilians. A Singaporean IS fighter, whose body was recently recovered, was among the dead militants, officials said.
According to earlier reports, two Indonesians, a Malaysian, two Saudis and a Chechen were among other foreign militants killed in the action in Marawi.
The viciousness of the gun battles and the presence of the foreign fighters in the city have raised regional concerns that Southeast Asia may become a hub for IS as it loses ground in Syria and Iraq. In recent weeks, officials in neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia have also warned that IS fighters fleeing from the battles in Marawi could try to infiltrate their nearby territories by sea.
In the Malaysian state of Sabah, which lies off the southern Philippines, an intelligence source with the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM), told BenarNews that all movements of ships in the area were being watched for suspicious activity.
"All fishing and passenger boats plying the Sulu sea are being intercepted by Malaysian security forces in the hope of getting information about IS militants in the area," the source said on condition of anonymity.
"The particulars of all people found on the Sabah side of the the Sulu sea are being questioned thoroughly, and their particulars are being noted and compared with those on the ESSCOM wanted lists," the source said, adding, "There are fears that IS Militants trying to flee the southern Philippines may disguise themselves as fishermen, or Filipinos wanting to ‘visit’ their friends or relatives already in Sabah."
Vantage point captured
On Wednesday, officials said troops had taken control of Dansalan College, a hilltop campus in Marawi that provides a vantage point for enemy snipers.
“The challenges for the troops also remain continuously in their fight to retake many of the buildings in the remaining four villages and that is why our troops continually are engaged the whole day as they make their way inside the interior areas,” military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said.
“We will continue to focus on this kind of operation as we enter into the inner areas of these villages that are held by the enemy,” he said.
Padilla said the discovery of two cadavers in Basilan was also a confirmation that the gunmen have become desperate in the face of a military offensive.
“It’s a positive indication that their forces are almost spent,” he said.
Colin Forsythe in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia contributed to this report.