Philippine police said Monday that they found the decomposing bodies of seven Filipinos who were kidnapped and beheaded by Abu Sayyaf gunmen on the southern island of Basilan.
Two of the seven executed men were abducted two weeks ago by gunmen under Abu Sayyaf sub-commander Furuji Indama, who has been blamed for kidnappings and beheadings in the past, according to Chief Inspector Tara Leah Cuyco, the regional police spokeswoman.
Cuyco said the militants seized the two on suspicion that they had strayed inside a rubber plantation owned by Indama.
“The motive may be personal for Furuji,” Cuyco said.
Police reports indicated that Indama had ordered his men to kidnap the two on suspicion that they were chainsaw operators who caused damage to his rubber plantation, she said.
Cuyco said the victims’ relatives identified them through their clothes.
Five other headless bodies were found in another area and turned over to forensic investigators.
An investigation was also underway, but police said Indama was likely also involved in those killings.
Abu Sayyaf militants are known for beheading their hostages unless ransom payments are made. They beheaded two Canadian hostages last year and a German captive in February.
Marawi offensive goes on
Military officials said the beheadings could be a move to distract the armed forces from Marawi city, where another faction of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) led by Isnilon Hapilon – the acknowledged leader of Islamic State (IS) in the Philippines – has engaged government troops in fierce fighting since May.
Philippine security forces are still trying to retake Marawi, about 309 km (193 miles) northeast of Basilan, from Abu Sayyaf fighters, who were backed by the local Maute gunmen and an undetermined number of fighters from Southeast Asia and other regions.
Military officials said the fighting that began on May 23 had killed 114 government forces, 45 civilians and 491 militants, including nine suspected extremists who were slain on Monday.
Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said troops were pressing forward slowly to an area in central Marawi where the gunmen have been contained. But the extremists rigged the place with improvised explosive device (IEDs) to slow the troop advance, he said.
The gunmen are believed to be holding some 300 hostages. President Rodrigo Duterte ordered troops last week to be careful not to hurt the civilians.
The fighting, Duterte’s toughest security challenge, has forced him to accept intelligence help from longtime ally the United States, as well as from Australia and Southeast Asian neighbors Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
He has placed the entire southern region under martial law, and recently won an extension from Congress to maintain military rule until the end of the year.
“The current operation inside Marawi is ongoing and the focus is particularly in an area where quite a number of unexploded ordnance and IEDs are still present,” Padilla said.
He said this had forced a “slowdown of the clearing of buildings” as troops continued to approach the main battle area. He described it as similar to Cambodia and Vietnam, which in the past were war-ravaged and peppered with mine fields.
“You know, after the war ended in those areas, the fields were littered literally with unexploded ordnance,” Padilla said. “And this is what is happening in Marawi right now.”
Mark Navales in Cotabato City contributed to this story.