Clashes in Bohol show Abu Sayyaf may be moving into central Philippines

In this photo taken on April 4, 2017 Philippine army soldiers stand aboard a vehicle during a march and review as part of their anniversary celebration at Fort Bonifacio in Manila.
In this photo taken on April 4, 2017 Philippine army soldiers stand aboard a vehicle during a march and review as part of their anniversary celebration at Fort Bonifacio in Manila.PHOTO: AFP

MANILA - Government forces clashed with suspected Abu Sayyaf militants on Tuesday (April 11) in Bohol, an island province popular with tourists, sparking concern that the militant group may be diverting their kidnapping activities to central Philippines.

Colonel Edgard Arevalo, the military's public affairs chief, said in a text message that three soldiers, including a second lieutenant, were killed when a team of soldiers and policemen encountered about a dozen heavily armed bandits on three pump boats at around 7am in Inabanga town, Bohol province.

He said the bodies of five militants were recovered, along with four firearms and an improvised explosive device.

Military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla said in a TV interview: "From the firearms we have recovered, it appears they were intending to cause trouble in the area."

Bohol and neighbouring Cebu province are popular beach and diving destinations for tourists, especially around this time of the year.

The clashes occurred days after the US embassy warned Americans against travelling to Cebu and Bohol due to an "unsubstantiated yet credible information" of terror threat in the area.

A raw intelligence report said the three boats were spotted leaving the Abu Sayyaf's stronghold in the Sulu archipelago. The report suggests that the Abu Sayyaf, known for profiting from kidnapping tourists, fishermen and sailors, may be venturing further north from Sulu.

This is the furthest the Abu Sayyaf has been sighted from Sulu, suggesting that navy patrols in waters separating Sulu and Sabah in Malaysia may be forcing the group to venture further into central Philippines.

The militants have been spotted before in Palawan province, which lies nearer to Sulu than Cebu and Bohol. In 2001, the Abu Sayyaf seized three Americans and 17 local tourists from a high-end resort in Palawan.

The militant group, which has sworn its allegiance to the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), was behind several kidnappings in Sabah. In March , five Malaysian sailors, abducted last July by the Abu Sayyaf, were rescued.

Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, said to be the head of the ISIS in the Philippines, may have been killed in an air raid two months ago, President Rodrigo Duterte said recently.

rdancel@sph.com.sg