ZAMBOANGA CITY: A Philippine Army officer was killed while at least four soldiers were wounded in fierce clashes with Abu Sayyaf rebels in Basilan on Thursday.
The military said the fighting erupted in Barangay Cabcaban in Sumisip town, a known Abu Sayyaf stronghold.
The clash broke out after rebels attacked a group of soldiers sent to track down the extremists.
There was no report of Abu Sayyaf casualties but the military said troops were pursuing the group of Puruji Indama, a notorious rebel leader whom the authorities tagged as behind a spate of deadly attacks and ransom kidnappings in the region.
The casualties are mostly members of the Special Forces.
President Rodrigo Duterte has – for the second time – ordered military forces to finish off the Abu Sayyaf and other jihadist groups tied to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) after failing to bring them to the negotiating table.
Thousands of Army troops were deployed to Mindanao to fight the Abu Sayyaf and other allied groups.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has set a deadline of six months to destroy the rebels.
AFP Chief of Staff Eduardo Año said at least four dozen Army battalions have been deployed to carry out Duterte’s order, who was perceived by some as soft on rebels but hard on drug users.
“Never in our history has there been such massive deployment of our troops,” Año told a television interview, saying the goal of the new government offensive is to wipe out the Abu Sayyaf and other terrorist groups.
He said 51 battalions have been deployed to the restive Mindanao region. “We are going to make sure that our campaign against the Abu Sayyaf will be quick,” he said.
Aside from the Abu Sayyaf, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Ansarul Khilafah, Khilafah Islamiyah Movement and Al-Khobar Group, including so-called rogue Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels, have also pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in an effort to establish a caliphate in Mindanao.
These groups operate in the troubled Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.