Five suspected Abu Sayyaf fighters and four Philippine security personnel were killed in a firefight Tuesday on the island of Bohol, a tourist destination north of Mindanao. The incursion by the terrorist organization followed just a few days after warnings from the U.S. embassy regarding "unsubstantiated yet credible information" on an impending threat in Bohol and Cebu.
Accounts of the size of the Abu Sayyaf force vary. Military and police units encountered a group of ten militants aboard three motorboats in Inabanga, a municipality on the northwest side of the island; in the ensuing firefight, five suspected Abu Sayyaf members, three soldiers and one policeman were killed, according to the local police and the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The Philippine military suggested that the fighters were associated with ASG leader Maumar Askali, also known as Abu Rami. However, a conflicting account from local residents indicated that they could be members of an Islamic State affiliate known as the Maute Group, based in Mindanao.
The Daily Inquirer reports that the military has launched a full-scale attack to drive as many as 60 suspected Abu Sayyaf fighters out of the region, deploying troops, artillery and ground-attack aircraft. Inabanga has ordered an evacuation to protect local citizens.
In addition, a military spokesman told media that a small group of Abu Sayyaf fighters may be attempting to infiltrate Cebu, across the Cebu Strait from Bohol. Local police called on the public to report suspicious activity that could be related to terrorist movements.
Civilians take cover as AFP forces engage the militants (in Tagalog, couresty Sun Star)
Abu Sayyaf has long funded its activities by kidnapping seafarers and tourists, and Bohol is a well-known destination for leisure travel. The center of its popular "Chocolate Hills" region is about 15 miles southwest of Inabanga, and the resort island of Panglao is about 30 miles to the southeast.
The AFP is engaged in a long-running battle against Abu Sayyaf in Sulu and Basilan, and Philippine military leaders have promised that the 26-year-old group will be vanquished within the next several months. Thanks in part to pressure from the military, many of Abu Sayyaf's hostages have been released; however, ReCAAP believes that ASG still holds 21 mariners in captivity.