A Marine and three Abu Sayyaf militants were killed in a firefight in the southern Philippine province of Jolo Thursday, a day after Congress approved President Rodrigo Duterte’s request to extend martial law in the Mindanao region for one more year to quell terrorist violence.
The fighting between 50 heavily armed members of the Abu Sayyaf group under sub-commander Majid Emamil and the Marine Ready Force erupted before dawn at a remote island off the town of Patikul, the military said.
“We are deeply saddened by the news that another gallant soldier was killed during the encounter of our troops with the militants,” said regional army spokesman Lt. Col. Gerry Besana.
Two other Marines were wounded and bought to a military hospital in the town of Jolo, where doctors said they were out of danger, Besana said.
“Three were killed on the enemy side,” he said. “Their remains were recovered including two rifles.”
Lt. Gen. Arnel Dela Vega, a regional military commander, said officials would extend the necessary assistance to the soldier’s bereaved family. He said the manhunt for the Abu Sayyaf gunmen was ongoing.
“All measures are now being undertaken, in accordance with the rules of engagement and with the support of the local government and the populace,” Dela Vega said.
The Abu Sayyaf, the smallest but most brutal of militant groups in the south, is believed to still be holding at least six hostages, three of them foreigners, on Jolo island. During the past two years, the group has beheaded a German and two Canadian hostages.
The military, however, has vowed to crush the rebel force this year, and lawmakers on Wednesday approved another yearlong extension of military rule covering the entire south, in a move aimed at ending militancy in the region.
Remnants of Abu Sayyaf militants who fought in the southern city of Marawi continue to pester the military in Mindanao.
Isnilon Hapilon, a former Abu Sayyaf leader and chief of the Islamic State in the Philippines, led a group of fighters from the Middle East and Southeast Asia and took over Marawi last year.
But security forces defeated the militants after five months of firefights that ruined the predominantly Islamic lakeshore city and killed 1,200 people, most of them militants.
Hapilon and his key aides were killed in October last year, ending the siege, but dozens of other fighters had escaped, authorities said. The militants, according to military officials, have been trying to rebuild their ranks by recruiting fresh gunmen in far-flung Muslim regions in the south.
After the Marawi fighting, authorities also captured suspected foreign militants in the south, including a Spaniard who was arrested in the nearby island of Basilan, months before a suicide bomb attack there that left 11 people dead.
The bomb attack was initially claimed by IS, and the U.S. intelligence group SITE named the attacker as a Moroccan national. But the Philippine government in its own investigation later said that the bomb was carried out by the Basilan branch of the Abu Sayyaf. It had charged 18 people for the bombing, including eight it had already arrested.
Meanwhile, police in Manila on Wednesday announced the capture of a suspected militant in a slum area north of the Philippine capital.
The suspect, Jomar Labay (alias Jumar Ibrahim), was wanted for the beheading of two Filipino sawmill workers kidnapped in the southern town of Butig in April 2016. He was also believed to be a follower of the Maute brothers who helped carry out the Marawi attack, although it was not clear if he fought in Marawi city.
Dennis Jay Santos from Davao City contributed to this report.