ZAMBOANGA CITY (4th UPDATE) - At least 21 people were killed Monday when armed men opened fire at a convoy of civilians in Talipao, Sulu who were travelling to a feast to mark the end of Ramadan, the military said.
Capt. Rowena Muywela, spokesperson of the Armed Forces' Western Mindanao Command, confirmed late Monday afternoon that 21 people died in the attack.
A 3-year-old boy and 6 policemen were among those killed in the attack, she said, while 4 other children were among the 11 wounded.
Muyuela said the militants appeared to have targeted the policemen, also local Muslims, who were aboard the convoy and travelling to the Eid'l Fitr festivities in their personal capacities.
Brig. Gen. Martin Pinto, commander of the 2nd Marine Brigade, said the victims were on board at least two jeepneys when they were fired upon by a group of armed men allegedly led by Abu Sayyaf Group sub-leader Idang Susukan.
Muywela, in an interview on ANC Top Story, said the suspected bandits attacked the convoy that carried around 40 people.
She said at least 50 Abu Sayyaf members opened fire on the victims, based on accounts of witnesses.
Operations have been launched by the military and local militia in Talipao and neighboring towns to capture the suspects.
Pinto believes that "rido"or clan war is the motive for the attack.
The shooting was the deadliest this year by the Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf, which was founded in the 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network.
The group is blamed for the worst terrorist attacks in the Philippines' recent history.
These include the 2004 bombing of a ferry that left more than 100 dead, abductions of foreign missionaries and tourists, and beheadings mostly of local people.
Jolo is one of the Abu Sayyaf's main strongholds, where militants are able to hide with relatives in the remote jungles of the mainly Muslim populated island.
The Abu Sayyaf is believed to be holding several hostages, including foreigners, on Jolo. Foreigners are warned not to travel to Jolo and nearby islands because of the threat of Abu Sayyaf kidnapping.
The Abu Sayyaf is just one of a number of guerrilla groups and warlords operating in the southern Philippines.
Fifty-eight people in the southern province of Maguindanao were killed in 2009 allegedly on the orders of a powerful political clan in what has been considered to be the worst case of election-related violence in the Philippines.
The attack was allegedly ordered by Andal Ampatuan Sr., a local political leader, and his sons to stop a rival from running against one of the family members for the governorship of the poor farming province.
More than 100 suspects, including leaders of the Ampatuan clan, are already detained and many are on trial for the mass murder.
But dozens of suspects still remain at large while the slow pace of the trial has raised fears that witnesses could be intimidated or targeted by those who carried out the killings. – with reports from Jewel Reyes, ABS-CBN News Zamboanga; Edwin Sevidal, dzMM; Agence France-Presse