NINE people, including three soldiers and a policeman, were killed Tuesday in clashes with 10 suspected members of the Abu Sayyaf kidnap group on the resort island of Bohol, authorities said.
The incursion would be the first on a key tourist destination in recent years by the group, which pledges allegiance to the Islamic State and often targets foreigners in Mindanao.
Five gunmen were killed, and four assault rifles and an improvised explosive device were recovered in the fighting on Bohol island, officials said.
The incident took place in a remote area, with local officials saying the militants had used fast boats to reach a village where they squared off against security forces who went to investigate.
An initial report by the Army’s 47th Infantry Battalion said the encounter broke out at around 7 a.m. when police and the military encountered at least 10 heavily armed terrorists.
Second Lt. Estelito Saldua had led the troops to verify information about the presence of armed men aboard three pump boats in Sitio Ilaya, Barangay Napo.
Military officials said the armed men were led by ASG sub-leader Muammar Askali, alias Abu Rami.
Armed Forces chief Gen. Eduardo Año said that the same group was spotted in Sindangan, Zamboanga del Norte, earlier.
Año said he ordered the deployment of more troops including naval and air assets to seal off all exit points.
US and Australian embassies had warned their citizens this week about possible kidnappings by “terrorist groups” specifically on Bohol and Cebu islands.
“The US Embassy has received unsubstantiated yet credible information that terrorist groups may attempt to conduct kidnappings in Central Visayas, which includes both Cebu and Bohol provinces,” the US advisory said.
Security forces have been on alert for “potential activity on the part of some lawless elements” during the peak Easter tourist season, military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said.
“Our forces who were acting on this information were able to engage these lawless armed groups that are believed to be part of the Abu Sayyaf group from Mindanao,” he said on ABS-CBN television.
Ano said security forces had reported a group armed with heavy-caliber weapons that has been cornered in an isolated section of Bohol.
“The clearing operations are ongoing and we are pouring in more forces to help and assist. We hope to finish this by the end of the day,” Padilla, the military spokesman, added.
The gunmen sailed into the Bohol town of Inabanga on Monday, going upriver toward a remote section of the island aboard three fast boats, Inabanga police officer Edwin Melicor said.
Residents told police the type of boats were used only in Mindanao — where the Abu Sayyaf is based.
A clash broke out as police went to investigate early Tuesday, Melicor added. The military later poured in reinforcements.
Bohol Gov. Edgar Chatto said the fighting was isolated in one village outside Inabanga, which he described as a farming and fishing community.
An unspecified number of residents had already fled to safety in nearby areas, he added.
“I am very disappointed that these elements coming out of nowhere are trying to destroy the lives of people living in peace,” Chatto said.
The Abu Sayyaf, also blamed for deadly bombings, has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State movement that holds large swathes of Iraq and Syria.
Bohol is a mere 30 minutes’ boat ride away from the major port of Cebu on Cebu island, which is also among the country’s top tourist draws. The attack came as millions of Filipinos head to resort locations for the holidays.
Bohol is famous among foreign tourists who swim with docile whale sharks and marvel at tiny primates called tarsiers, go on cruises aboard boats on crystal-clear rivers and lounge on its beaches.
Over the past year, the Abu Sayyaf has been expanding its activities, boarding commercial and fishing vessels off their southern island stronghold of Jolo, near Malaysia, and abducting dozens of foreign crew members.
They beheaded a German tourist earlier this year and two Canadian tourists last year, all three of them having been seized at sea. With AFP