5 Abu Sayyaf men still on the run in Bohol: military chief

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 12 2017 03:12 PM | Updated as of Apr 12 2017 05:30 PM

Government troops are "still tracking" five Abu Sayyaf members who survived the firefight in Inabanga, Bohol, Gen. Eduardo Año, Armed Forces Chief of Staff, said Wednesday.

At least 11 members of the Abu Sayyaf were spotted along the Inabanga River Tuesday morning, hours before government forces launched an offensive against the terrorist group.

"We killed 6 (Abu Sayyafs), there are 5 we are still tracking. They have local contacts in the area," Año told reporters.

Intelligence reports showed the group was supposed to carry "a plan for kidnapping," the AFP chief said.

Año said the 5 remaining fighters had fled after an overnight siege near a remote village. Officials said helicopter gunships were used to bomb the militants.

"They are on the run. They have left their belongings (behind)," Ano told a press conference. 

"We already have leads on the direction of their escape. They cannot fight as a potent force like before. They are all running for their lives."

The government lost three soldiers and a policeman in the battle that broke out Tuesday in a rural area of Bohol -- one of the country's top tourism draws.

The bandits' contact in Bohol also fled the community before police and military scoured Barangay Napo and nearby villages in Inabanga.

"We cannot divulge his identity pero tumakas na din siya from the area. Cleared na yung tatlong bahay. We can say na back to normal na yung community doon," Año said.

Año assured tourists that the province is safe as the incident was contained in one municipality, and most of the terrorists have been killed.

Among those killed was Muammar "Abu Rami" Askali, the Abu Sayyaf's spokesperson. Año said his corpse was positively identified by Abu Sayyaf members who were under military's custody.

Abu Rami was a young, aggressive and upcoming leader of the Abu Sayyaf, and his death was among the "important headways" gained by the government against the terrorist group.

Eleven members, including 2 sub-leaders, of the Abu Sayyaf surrendered to the government in Sangga-sangga, Tawi-Tawi Tuesday, while another Abu Sayyaf wing from Basilan yielded last week, Año said.

"Hopefully, other Abu Sayyaf members will have a clearer mind and surrender to authorities," Año said.

"We expect to see more in the coming days... We are working very silently but very effectively," he added.

TOURISM FALLOUT?

As the government moved to contain the fallout on tourism, Ano said the military would repel similar incursions.

"The Abu Sayyaf must think twice, our security forces (are) working... effectively as they thwarted their plans to sow terror in the area," he said.

Just days before the raid the US and Australian governments warned their citizens about potential "terrorist" kidnappings on Bohol and neighboring Cebu island, also a major tourist destination.

Residents said they saw 10 gunmen on three fast boats sailing upriver to a farming region planted with palm oil and corn.

Authorities said some 100 residents fled the fighting. Hoteliers and visitors told AFP the incident has not affected tourist traffic on the island as yet, though there was increased police security.

Bohol bills itself as a tropical paradise sought after by foreign tourists who go there to swim with docile whale sharks, travel its rivers on boat cruises, and lounge on unspoiled beaches.

HOSTAGES, RANSOMS

Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asian security expert at the National War College in the United States, told AFP the Abu Sayyaf likely sent its gunmen to Bohol "to kidnap and sow panic."

"If successful, the raid could have given them additional hostages, and potentially ransoms," he said.

"More importantly, it would undermine confidence in the government, and force (President Rodrigo Duterte) to redeploy forces to what were previously thought of as safe regions."

Over the past year the Abu Sayyaf has been expanding its activities from its main Jolo base in the south where the military has been waging an offensive in recent months. 

Its boat-riding gunmen have been boarding commercial and fishing vessels and abducting dozens of foreign crew members.

Abuza said it was not the first time the Abu Sayyaf had staged long-range kidnapping raids, having regularly done so in Malaysian Sabah.

"They clearly benefit from the woefully inadequate maritime capabilities of the Philippine navy and coast guard ... The amount of territory is very large, and these guys are moving on very small fast craft that blend in."

-- With reports from Ayee Macaraig, Agence France-Presse