Military says Daesh-linked group has splintered into small bands to evade troops in troubled Sulu island
At least two members of a Daesh-linked militant group have been killed in a clash with Philippine government troops in the troubled southern island province of Sulu.
Brig. Gen. Arnel dela Vega, Joint Task Force Sulu commander, said in a statement that the clash occurred in a remote village in Indanan town at around 6.45 a.m. (0045GMT) Sunday.
He said elite troops from the 11th Scout Ranger Company were responding to a tip from local residents regarding the presence of fully armed men in the majority Muslim area when they encountered a group of eight Abu Sayyaf members.
"The others [six Abu Sayyaf militants] were able to escape," said Dela Vega.
There were no immediate reports of casualties on the government side due to the clash, after which an M16 assault rifle with an attached M203 grenade launcher and an improvised bomb were recovered from the site.
Official data indicates that Sunday's encounter brings the total number of Abu Sayyaf members killed since the launch of intensified combat operations in July to 37.
According to the military, the militant group has splintered into small bands to evade the military offensive, planting improvised explosives across the area to impede troops.
Dela Vega stressed Sunday that the focused military operation would continue until the Abu Sayyaf is dealt “a crippling blow” and the group’s remaining hostages -- believed to include several foreigners and Filipinos -- rescued.
Earlier this week, reports released by police and military authorities revealed that the group made around 353 million pesos ($7.3 million) from kidnap-for-ransom activities in the first six months of this year.
During a visit to southern Cotabato City on Saturday, President Rodrigo Duterte again called on armed groups in Mindanao island to stop fighting the government so that development projects can be pursued in the region.
“Things will improve and you will have your own share of development money,” he said during the launch of a number of programs aimed at tackling hunger and underdevelopment in indigenous Moro Muslim communities.
He threatened that if the Abu Sayyaf and other armed groups do not stop conducting bombings and other attacks, “I will buy you tickets” to “go to the ISIS [Daesh]”, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported.
Since 1991, the Abu Sayyaf -- armed with mostly improvised explosive devices, mortars and automatic rifles -- has carried out bombings, kidnappings, assassinations and extortions in a self-determined fight for an independent province in the Philippines.
It is notorious for beheading victims after ransoms have failed to be paid for their release.
The Abu Sayyaf is among two militant groups in the south who have pledged allegiance to Daesh, prompting fears during the stalling of a peace process between the government and the country's one-time largest Moro rebel group that it could make inroads in a region torn by decades of armed conflict.