A Filipino soldier was killed and three other troops were injured Thursday during a clash with suspected Abu Sayyaf militants on southern Jolo Island, the Philippine military said.
Philippines authorities have blamed Islamic State-linked members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) for twin bombings on Jan. 27 that killed 23 people and injured more than 100 at a church in Jolo town, the capital of Sulu province.
The soldier died during a 20-minute gunfight that broke out between the troops and an Abu Sayyaf unit near Patikul town, where the military has carried out daily assaults against suspected militant hideouts since the attack on the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral.
The soldiers belonged to a Special Forces unit tasked with chasing and catching militants, the regional military commander said Thursday.
“As we speak, military troops are in pursuit of the evading militants. Ground units are also prepositioned to deliver fire support and block withdrawal routes of the militants,” Lt. Gen. Arnel Dela Vega said.
“Our tactical and intelligence operations targeting the neutralization of the militants and the penetration of the enemy’s strategic strongholds will be bolstered,” he added.
Earlier this month, five soldiers and three Abu Sayyaf suspects were killed in an encounter in the jungles of Patikul. Five more soldiers and at least 15 Abu Sayyaf fighters were wounded.
The East Asia province of Islamic State (IS), in a statement, claimed responsibility for last month’s bombings at the church, according to SITE Intelligence, a U.S.-based group that monitors online communications among Muslim militant groups.
Later, President Rodrigo Duterte said the attack was likely carried out by “suicide bombers.”
The police have since arrested several men who allegedly worked with senior Abu Sayyaf commander Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan to plan and execute the attack. It was also alleged that two people, believed to be Indonesian, had carried out the bombing, a claim over which Jakarta officials have cast doubt.
After the five Aby Sayyaf suspects were arrested on Feb. 4 in connection with the bombing, the Philippine Interior Department said it considered the investigation into the attack solved.
“As far as the government is concerned, the Jolo bombing case is already solved. We have already identified the perpetrators of the bombing and they are now under police custody," Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said, according to CNN Philippines.
The Jolo bombing, nonetheless, was evidence that IS was influencing violent extremism in Southeast Asia, Navy Adm. Philip Davidson told a Congressional panel in Washington this week.
Earlier, the U.S. government had said Sawadjaan was the likely successor of Isnilon Hapilon, the IS Filipino commander who led militants in a five-month siege of Marawi, a city in the southern Philippines, but was killed when government forces re-took it in October 2017.
“Outside the Philippines, we saw a number of small-scale attacks in 2018, and I remain concerned about the growth of ISIS in the region,” Davidson, who heads the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command based in Hawaii, said Tuesday in his report to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.
“Self-radicalized violent extremists who are influenced or inspired by ISIS or other extremists are another cause for concern. The recent attack on a local Catholic parish in Jolo, in the Sulu Archipelago, is evidence of continued concern,” he said, using another acronym for IS.