ZAMBOANGA CITY—Thirty-two soldiers were wounded as the military operation against a sub-leader of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group entered its second day on Monday in Sulu province, officials said Monday.
Elements of the Joint Task Force Sulu launched the operation against the group of Abu Sayyaf sub-leader Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan in Talipao town on Sunday, task force commander Cirilito Sobejana told the Philippines News Agency.
“The firefight is still ongoing,” Sobejana said.
He made the statement even as President Rodrigo Duterte said Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon might have died as a result of the military opperation against the anointed leader of the Islamic State in the country.
In a speech before an audience that included four-year-old kids, Duterte said that the lack of reports about Hapilon raised hopes that the top ISIS man in the country is already dead.
“I ordered his bombing of the house one month, two months ago. And we have not heard from him. So I suppose [he might be dead],” Duterte said.
Sobejana could not determine the exact number of casualties on the side of the Abu Sayaff, saying “reports were still trickling in.”
“We will provide the data later,” he said.
The group of Sawadjaan has been tagged for the string of abductions in nearby Malaysia in recent years.
The elusive Abu Sayyaf sub-leader had been the target of the military’s manhunt operations against high value individuals in Sulu after Sawadjaan emerged as the new sub-leader of the bandit group.
The military says Sawadjaan leads at least 150 bandits.
The Abu Sayyaf are still holding 28 people, mostly foreigners, and it was not immediately clear if the group of Sawadjaan is holding any of them.
The Sulu task force has beefed up its operations against the Abu Sayyaf, which splintered into several groups following President Durterte’s order to finish them off in six months. The deadline will lapse on June 30.
“Our troops on the ground continue to intensify the conduct of focused military operations in Sulu and adhere to the rules of engagement to contain lawless groups ,” said Maj. Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr., head of the Western Mindanao Command. With John Paolo Bencito