MINDANAO–Barely two weeks in office, the new Duterte government and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) have launched an all-out military offensive against the heavily armed Abu Sayyaf Group. So far, 40 rebels have been killed and two dozen wounded in the provinces of Basilan and Sulu, the country’s cradle of merciless militants.
This announcement was made by Philippine military spokesman Col. Filemon Tan during a regular media briefing about the ongoing military offensives against the Islamic militants.
The number of Abu Sayyaf militants killed this month is the largest number of casualties ever inflicted against the rebel group. This has occurred in only the first two weeks of the Duterte administration.
Duterte earlier warned Abu Sayyaf to halt their terrorist activities. Otherwise, he said, they will face the full force of the law. But the rebels made a mockery of the government’s warning by beheading two Canadian captives after both the captives’ relatives and the Canadian government failed to raise $13 million in ransom money to secure their freedom.
In response to the beheadings, the Philippines armed forces deployed scores of armored vehicles, artillery pieces and close air support with the aim of wiping out the militants who have become well-known for kidnapping and extortion activities in the Southern Philippines and Eastern Malaysia.
The offensive cost the life of an army solider last week. Another scout ranger also was killed this week by an improvised explosive device while chasing 200 heavily armed Abu Sayyaf militants in Basilan led by their commanders who go by the names “Hapilon” and “Indama.”
Want military face-off
The military has said the offensives will take a bit longer to complete because the’re waiting for the right time to launch decisive attacks that will result in direct battles with the rebels. AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Ricardo Visaya said in Manila that he was satisfied with how his soldiers were doing their job in Sulu and Basilan.
Tan told media that the troops are succeeding in containing the Abu Sayyaf core group and can prevent the firefight from spreading to other communities.
However, at least 7,000 civilians already have been displaced since the start of the military offensives. The provincial government of Basilan has also declared a state of calamity in the towns of Tipo-Tipo, Ungkaya Pukan and Al-Barka.
A source told Asia Times that military pressure on Abu Sayyaf had caused the group to delay the beheading of another hostage — Norwegian national Kjartan Sekkingstad.
A Philippine daily earlier reported that Abu Sayyaf planned to behead Sekkingstad. But an Abu Sayyaf leader known as commander Rami announced that the group was delaying the beheading because they’re aware that ransom money was ready to be turned over.
The rebels still hold at least 14 hostages – one Dutch, one Norwegian, five Filipinos and seven Indonesians.
Abu Sayyaf’s leaders have been able to elude authorities because of support from the surrounding community. Intelligence reports reaching Asia Times disclose that the group has thousands of local sympathizers. The military also suspects that the Abu Sayyaf is sharing its ransom money with the locals to gain their cooperation and prevent soldiers from gathering information of their whereabouts.
Abu Sayyaf officially claims to be fighting for a separate Islamic State in the Philippines. But they have mostly concentrated on kidnapping and extortion activities in the Southern Philippines and East Malaysia and have shown little ideological focus.
Noel Tarrazona is a freelance international journalist based in Vancouver but is presently in the Philippines. He is also a senior analyst of wikistrat and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org