MANILA: Philippine security forces hunting one of the world’s most-wanted Islamist militants were battling gunmen in a southern city yesterday, authorities said. Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the infamous Abu Sayyaf kidnapping-for-ransom gang who the Islamic State group has appointed its Philippine chief, was believed to be among those fighting police and soldiers in Marawi city, regional military spokeswoman Captain Jo-Ann Petinglay said.
“Right now we are conducting a surgical operation,” Lieutenant-Colonel Jo-ar Herrera, spokesman for the army division involved in the fighting, said by phone. Herrera said five security personnel had been injured, although he did not know if there were any casualties among the estimated 15 gunmen. Herrera and other military officials said Hapilon was the target of the operation, which took place in the residential area of Basak, a suburb of about 1,700 people in the mainly Muslim southern city of Marawi.
The Abu Sayyaf, based in the southern region of Mindanao, has kidnapped hundreds of Filipinos and foreigners since the early 1990s to extract ransoms. The militants beheaded an elderly German and two Canadians last year after ransom demands were not met. It has also been blamed for the country’s worst terrorist attacks, including the 2004 bombing of a ferry in Manila Bay that claimed more than 100 lives.
The US State Department has a put up a $5-million bounty on Hapilon’s head for alleged terrorist acts against US citizens, including the 2001 kidnapping of three Americans in the western Philippines, two of whom were later killed. Security analysts say Hapilon has been trying to unite militant groups that have professed allegiance to IS. These include the Maute group, which is based near Marawi in central Mindanao. The Maute group has been the subject of military operations in the past year in rural areas around Marawi, a city of about 200,000 residents that is located 800 kilometers south of the Philippine capital Manila.
“Our objective is to neutralize Hapilon, who is reported to be in the area, and the Maute core group,” Petinglay said, adding the operation began at 2.00 pm (0600 GMT) and was continuing. “These are all high-value targets, so you can say this is a major operation,” she said, adding the estimated 15 suspects were armed with high-powered rifles. An army brigade comprising at least a thousand troops were involved in the operation, she said.–AFP