The Philippine government vowed Monday to pursue Abu Sayyaf militants relentlessly after the military said it killed a suspected senior member of the group in the wake of a Friday clash that left 11 soldiers dead in southern Sulu province.
Presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo said military operations against the Abu Sayyaf Group would continue without letup after last week’s gunfight on Sulu’s Jolo Island in which 14 other army members were wounded.
“The perpetrators of these crimes should be relentlessly and mercilessly pursued to wherever until the guillotine of law falls down hard on them for their lawless and barbaric acts of violence,” Panelo, a former spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte, told reporters.
The military said its forces gunned down a suspected Abu Sayyaf militant identified as “Vikram,” as he tried to evade troops on Saturday near Talipao town on Sulu island. A second suspect escaped, officials said.
It was not clear whether Vikram was involved in the hourlong clash with Abu Sayyaf militants a day earlier.
Maj. Gen. Corleto Vinluan Jr., chief of the Army’s 11th Infantry Division, described Vikram as an explosives expert who was linked to recent bombings in the region, including twin blasts that killed 23 people at a church on Jolo in January 2019.
On Sunday, U.S. President Donald Trump expressed condolences for the Philippine military’s loss, during a phone conversation with his counterpart, Rodrigo Duterte, according to a White House statement.
“The two leaders also discussed how the United States and the Philippines can continue building upon the strong and enduring economic, cultural and security ties binding the two nations,” the statement said.
Military authorities have identified Vikram as a grandson of Abu Sayyaf leader Radullan Sahiron, one of the original leaders of the group.
Officials believe Sahiron works side by side with Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, the overall Abu Sayyaf commander who has been identified as the new leader of the Philippine affiliate of Islamic State after Isnilon Hapilon was killed at the end of the battle of Marawi in 2017.
Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, regional military commander, said no soldier was harmed during the operation that led to Vikram’s killing. He said the firefight took place after security forces received information from village residents about the presence of militants in the area.
“[T]his successful operation proves that the direct involvement of the communities would put up pressure on the Abu Sayyaf and constrict their movements as well,” Sobejana told reporters.
Earlier this month, Philippine security forces killed three suspected Abu Sayyaf members in a Jolo jungle. Soldiers also killed two suspected militants in a firefight elsewhere in Sulu province in February, officials said.
Friday’s firefight, the deadliest in months, occurred as troops were tracking down ASG fighters led by Sawadjaan.
Three years ago, Isnilon Hapilon and his men seized the southern city of Marawi in a campaign to convert it into an Islamic caliphate in the region, officials said. Air force jets pounded Marawi with bombs during five months of fighting that killed about 1,200 people, most of them militants.
After taking the regional IS reins, Sawadjaan masterminded bomb attacks, including last year’s twin blasts perpetrated by an Indonesian couple at the Jolo church, officials said.
Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales in Cotabato City, Philippines, contributed to this report.