MANILA (AFP) - The Philippines military said Wednesday (April 12) it was on the trail of five Islamic militants who are on the run after landing on a tourist island, triggering clashes with security forces that claimed 10 lives.
The military chief said six Abu Sayyaf gunmen had been killed, among a group of 11 that arrived in Bohol by boat from their southern base of Jolo island, about 500km away.
The government lost three soldiers and a policeman in the battle that broke out Tuesday in a rural area of Bohol - one of the country's top tourism draws.
Local officials said the armed men sailed upriver Monday through the island, raising fears they were there to kidnap foreign visitors travelling for the Easter holidays.
The Abu Sayyaf, made up of several hundred Filipino Muslim militants, is notorious for kidnappings, beheadings and deadly bombings. Its leaders have also pledged allegiance to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Philippine military chief General Eduardo Ano said the five remaining fighters had fled after an overnight siege near a remote village. Officials said helicopter gunships were used to bomb the militants.
"They are on the run. They have left their belongings (behind)," Ano told a press conference.
"We already have leads on the direction of their escape. They cannot fight as a potent force like before. They are all running for their lives."
Ano said security forces had killed a key Abu Sayyaf leader known by his alias Abu Rahmi. The claim could not be independently confirmed.
He said Abu Rahmi was behind several kidnappings including a 2015 raid on the southern island resort of Samal in which four tourists - two Canadians, a Norwegian and a Filipina - were snatched.
The two Canadian men were beheaded last year after their families and their government failed to pay ransom, while the Norwegian man and the Filipina were later freed unharmed.
As the government moved to contain the fallout on tourism, Ano said the military would repel similar incursions.
"The Abu Sayyaf must think twice, our security forces (are) working... effectively as they thwarted their plans to sow terror in the area," he said.
Just days before the raid the US and Australian governments warned their citizens about potential "terrorist" kidnappings on Bohol and neighbouring Cebu island, also a major tourist destination.
Residents said they saw 10 gunmen on three fast boats sailing upriver to a farming region planted with palm oil and corn.
Authorities said some 100 residents fled the fighting. Hoteliers and visitors told AFP the incident has not affected tourist traffic on the island as yet, though there was increased police security.
Bohol bills itself as a tropical paradise sought after by foreign tourists who go there to swim with docile whale sharks, travel its rivers on boat cruises, and lounge on unspoiled beaches.
Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asian security expert at the National War College in the United States, told AFP the Abu Sayyaf likely sent its gunmen to Bohol "to kidnap and sow panic".
"If successful, the raid could have given them additional hostages, and potentially ransoms," he said.
"More importantly, it would undermine confidence in the government, and force (President Rodrigo Duterte) to redeploy forces to what were previously thought of as safe regions."
Over the past year the Abu Sayyaf has been expanding its activities from its main Jolo base in the south where the military has been waging an offensive in recent months.
Its boat-riding gunmen have been boarding commercial and fishing vessels and abducting dozens of foreign crew members.
Abuza said it was not the first time the Abu Sayyaf had staged long-range kidnapping raids, having regularly done so in Malaysian Sabah.
"They clearly benefit from the woefully inadequate maritime capabilities of the Philippine navy and coast guard ... The amount of territory is very large, and these guys are moving on very small fast craft that blend in."