Philippine troops rescued two of three Indonesian hostages held by the Abu Sayyaf gang in the southern island of Jolo following a clash that left one militant and one soldier dead on Sunday, the military said.
A third captive, Muhammad Farhan, was dragged away as troops closed in on the gunmen. A Marine soldier was killed and another was wounded in the fighting in a remote village in Jolo’s Panamao township, the military said.
The rescued hostages were identified as Maharudin Bin Lunani, 48, and Samiun bin Maneu, 26, both fishermen. The two were grabbed by armed men off Lahad Datu in Sabah, Malaysia in September, the military said.
The military had refrained from commenting on the abductions initially, saying that the incident occurred in international waters. But intelligence officials told BenarNews that the fishermen were grabbed by pirates and later turned over to the Abu Sayyaf gunmen for profit. Similar abductions have occurred in the past, they said.
Maj. Arvin John Encinas, spokesman of Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom), said soldiers from the 4th Marine Battalion Landing Team (MBLT) first encountered the Abu Sayyaf group.
A brief firefight took place that led to the casualties, he said. Another Marine unit maneuvered to hit the group a second time and rescued the hostages.
“We suffered one Marine fatality and another was wounded in the encounter. The troops have been pursuing for the rescue of the third kidnap victim,” Encinas said.
Officials identified the slain militant as Hairula Item, and said they had recovered an assault rifle and a grenade launcher from him.
“We will continue to pursue and neutralize militants with our deliberate operations to rescue captives and thwart their hostile plans," military Western Mindanao Command chief Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said in a brief statement.
"We have reinforced our troops and have cordoned off the area, so we are optimistic that we can rescue Farhan,” he added.
Meanwhile, Sobejana said a civilian informant whose tip led to the rescue last month of British national Allan Arthur Hyrons and his Filipina wife received a reward of two million pesos Saturday from the provincial government of Zamboanga del Sur.
Sobejana said the informant flew from Jolo to the provincial capital, Pagadian City, to receive the reward. Hyrons and Wilma Paglinawan-Hyrons were rescued after a fierce gun battle in November that left six Abu Sayyaf gunmen dead.
Sobejana said troops were aiming to neutralize the Abu Sayyaf group and two of its top leaders, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan and Radulan Sahiron, soon.
“We are aiming to meet the target of the president to neutralize the Abu Sayyaf. So we are looking forward to the neutralization of the two key leaders,” he said.
Sawadjaan, an Abu Sayyaf commander and a Muslim religious leader, is believed to be the new Islamic State leader in the south. He replaced Isnilon Hapilon, who was killed months after leading hundreds of fighters in taking over the southern city of Marawi in 2017. A five-month battle over the city left hundreds of fighters, soldiers and civilians dead.
The military said Sawadjaan’s group has been working with foreign militants and seeking new targets in the south after the fall of Marawi. Two Indonesian suicide bombers blew themselves up at a church in Jolo in January this year, killing 23 people.
Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales contributed to this report from Cotabato City, Philippines