Philippine troops have killed four Abu Sayyaf militants, including a leader, as government forces pursue remnants of the group behind a foiled mass kidnapping attempt on a tourist island.
The government said the dead suspects were stragglers from a boatload of bandits who had sailed to the central island province of Bohol early this month.
Colonel Edgard Arevalo, the military's public affairs head, said in a statement issued yesterday that four terrorists "were neutralised, one after the other in a running gunbattle" at midday on Saturday at a rice and coconut farming village near Clarin town, near the site of earlier clashes on April 11.
Among those killed was Joselito Milloria, 33, described as Abu Sayyaf's pointman in Bohol.
Milloria was also purportedly being groomed to head another militant group, Ansar al-Khilafah Philippines (AKP), following the death of its erstwhile leader Mohammad Jaafar Maguid in January. Maguid was an apprentice of Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan.
Both Abu Sayyaf and AKP have ties to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Three suspects were still on the run after the latest clashes.
"The remaining lawless armed elements who are strangers in the area have nowhere to go," said Col Arevalo. "It could just be a matter of time before we can say that the threat (on Bohol) is totally eliminated."
Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla, the military's spokesman, said Milloria and the three men killed with him on Saturday were part of the same group that figured in an hours-long firefight with government forces in another part of Bohol on April 11.
Milloria converted to Islam in 2015, after marrying the daughter of a commander of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front. He then began using the alias Abu Alih.
In the April 11 clashes, Abu Sayyaf spokesman Muamar Askali, also known as Abu Rami, a so-called "rising star" in Muslim extremist circles, was killed along with three of his followers. Three soldiers, a policeman and two civilians tagged by the military as Abu Sayyaf sympathisers, were also killed.
Askali was leading a band of militants who sailed northnearly 800km from an Abu Sayyaf base in Indanan town, in Sulu province, to snatch tourists in Bohol.
He was said to be the one behind high-profile kidnappings of foreigners off Malaysia's Sabah state and around the southern Philippine island group of Mindanao in the last two years.
The fighting in Bohol has affected the Philippines' tourism industry.
The Philippines alerted Western governments after the military said it got wind of an Abu Sayyaf plan to raid central Philippine resorts during the Easter holidays and kidnap up to a dozen Caucasian tourists. This led to travel warnings being issued by the United States, Australia and other countries.
Meanwhile, a Filipino soldier kidnapped last week in the southern Philippines by Abu Sayyaf militants has been beheaded, the military said yesterday. Brigadier-General Cirilito Sobejana said the soldier was probably abducted and executed because of his involvement in peace initiatives in Sulu.