Four Abu Sayyaf militants, including a leader, have been killed by Philippine troops as the government forces were pursuing remnants of the group behind a foiled mass kidnapping attempt on a tourist island. According to the government, the dead suspects were stragglers from a boatload of bandits, who had sailed to the central island province of Bohol early this month.
Colonel Edgard Arevalo, the military's public affairs head, said in a statement issued on Sunday that the four militants "were neutralised, one after the other in a running gun battle" at midday on Saturday. The incident took place at a rice and coconut farming village near Clarin town, near the site of earlier clashes on April 11.
The authorities said that Joselito Milloria, who is described as Abu Sayyaf's point man in Bohol, was also among those who were killed.
The 33-year-old Milloria was also purportedly being groomed to head another militant group, Ansar al-Khilafah Philippines (AKP), following the death of its erstwhile leader Mohammad Jaafar Maguid in January. Maguid was an apprentice of Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan.
In 2015, Milloria converted to Islam, after marrying the daughter of a commander of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Then, he began using the alias Abu Alih.
Reports say both Abu Sayyaf and AKP have ties to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Three suspects were still on the run after the latest clashes.
"The remaining lawless armed elements who are strangers in the area have nowhere to go," Col Arevalo told The Straits Times. "It could just be a matter of time before we can say that the threat (on Bohol) is totally eliminated."
Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla, the military's spokesman said Milloria and the three men, who were killed along with him on Saturday, were a part of the same group that figured in an hours-long firefight with government forces in another part of Bohol on April 11.
Apart from these militants, Abu Sayyaf spokesman Muamar Askali, also known as Abu Rami, a so-called "rising star" in Muslim extremist circles, was also killed along with three of his followers in the April 11 clashes. The authorities said three soldiers, a policeman and two civilians, who were tagged by the military as Abu Sayyaf sympathisers, were also killed.
Askali was leading a band of militants who sailed north, nearly 800km from an Abu Sayyaf base, in Indanan town, in Sulu province, to snatch tourists in Bohol. Askali was said to be the one behind high-profile kidnappings of foreigners off Malaysia's Sabah state and around the southern Philippine island group of Mindanao in the last two years.
The Bohol fighting has affected the tourism industry in the Philippines. The military had alerted the government by saying that the Abu Sayyaf group might plan to raid central Philippine resorts during the Easter holidays and kidnap up to a dozen Caucasian tourists. After this, the Philippines alerted Western governments leading to travel warnings issued by the United States, Australia and other countries.