The Philippine army said it killed four Abu Sayyaf militants from an Islamic State-linked faction in a preemptive strike in the south on Wednesday amid suspicions they could launch attacks similar to those that hit Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday.
The four suspected members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) were killed during an operation on Basilan, an island province that sits off Mindanao. The strike targeted a lair of followers of ASG commander Furuji Indama, whose group worked last year with IS in plotting and carrying out a car-bomb attack that killed 11 people on Basilan, officials said.
“The focused military operation aimed at hitting Indama’s group in the hinterlands of Gipitan,” in the remote Ungkaya Pukan township of Basilan, said Col. Gerry Besana of the Western Mindanao Command in nearby Zamboanga.
Indama was second in command to overall IS leader in Southeast Asia, Isnilon Hapilon, who led a five-month siege in the city of Marawi in 2017. Hapilon, a known ASG commander, was killed in October 2017 at the end of a battle with government forces that left about 1,200 people dead and reduced parts of Marawi to rubble.
Wednesday’s strike, military officials said, was aimed at preventing the group from carrying out a “sympathy attack” after coordinated suicide bombings claimed by IS killed nearly 360 people at churches and hotels in three Sri Lankan cities.
Regional army chief Brig. Gen. Fernando Reyeg confirmed the Wednesday morning assault, saying that elite Scout Rangers were involved in the attack. He said that initial reports from the ground said four ASG militants were killed in an hour-long fighting at dawn.
Troops recovered the remains of the four along with an M16 rifle, an M14 sniper rifle and an R4 assault rifle, in the attack site, Reyeg said.
“Pursuit has been ongoing. Our troops were tracking down the location of the fleeing Abu Sayyaf members who were on the run,” Reyeg said, adding that attack helicopters provided close air support to the ground groups. No one was reported injured on the government side.
Meanwhile, in the nearby island province of Sulu, an ASG sub-leader was killed on Tuesday during a raid launched by Marines on the island municipality of Pata. Hapidz Abdurahman (alias Jihad) was killed after engaging the Marines who pursued him, officials said. He was wanted for murder and several atrocities.
The military attacks in Basilan and Sulu came as security was tightened across Mindanao, the country’s main southern third to head off any attacks similar those that rocked Sri Lanka on April 21.
On Monday, police said they foiled a bomb attack after they recovered two improvised bombs left outside a Catholic chapel in Lambayong, a town in Sultan Kuradat province.
The bombs were fashioned from an 81-mm mortars and were discovered by church workers who alerted the police bomb squad, Lambayong police chief Capt. Herman Luna said.
Luna blamed members of the militant group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a group that has pledged allegiance to IS, as being behind the attempted bomb plot.
“It could have been a powerful explosion had the IED exploded,” Luna said Tuesday.
Joseph Jubelag and Mark Navales contributed to this report from General Santos City and Cotabato City, Philippines.