The Associated Press MANILA (AP) — Philippine troops clashed with Abu Sayyaf gunmen in fierce jungle fighting that left five soldiers and three militants dead, as the military pushed forward with a fresh offensive following a deadly church bombing last weekend.
President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered government forces to destroy Abu Sayyaf after the bombing last Sunday of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral in the Sulu provincial capital of Jolo that killed 22 people and wounded more than 100. The attack has renewed terrorism fears across the Philippines, where the national police went on full alert and security has been strengthened in churches, shopping malls and other public areas.
Regional military spokesman Col. Gerry Besana said another five soldiers and 15 militants were wounded in nearly two hours of fighting Saturday between the army and about 150 Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militant group-linked fighters in the jungles near Patikul town.
The militants were led by Abu Sayyaf commander Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, who is suspected of helping plot the bombing. Abu Sayyaf, which has about 300 to 400 armed fighters, has been blacklisted by the United States and the Philippines as a terrorist organization because of years of bombings, kidnappings and beheadings in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation.
Government forces have over the years pressed on sporadic offensives to crush the group, including in Jolo, a poverty-wracked island of more than 700,000 people where Muslims are the majority. A few thousand Catholics live mostly in the provincial capital.
Since the church attack, the air force has launched airstrikes on suspected militant bases near Patikul and police killed a suspected militant on a raid in the city.