Killing of key militant a success and worry for Philippines

If it is proven that the gunmen were from Abu Sayyaf, it may be the group's first known attempt to carry out ransom kidnappings deep into the heartland of the central Philippines, far from its jungle lairs in the southern provinces of Sulu and Basilan.

Police and Army units on Tuesday afternoon started searching hospitals in four provinces and five cities in Northern Mindanao for suspected Abu Sayyaf members who may have survived the clash in Bohol province earlier on the same day.

At least one policeman was confirmed killed in the fight, national police spokesman Senior Superintendent Dionardo Carlos said in a statement.

"We salute their gallantry as we also assure their families that they will be provided all the necessary assistance from the government", he added.

Bohol and neighboring Cebu province are popular tourist areas, which feature beaches and diving.

Security forces have been on alert for "potential activity on the part of some lawless elements" during the peak Easter tourist season, military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla said.

The attack comes just days after the US Embassy in the Philippines warned its citizens of possible kidnappings by terrorist groups in Central Visayas after it received "unsubstantiated yet credible" information.

Askali was leading a band that sailed northward for almost 800km from an Abu Sayyaf base in Indanan town, Sulu province, to Bohol.

According to military intelligence reports, Rami ordered the beheading of two Canadian nationals in 2016 and a 70-year-old German hostage in February after his group's demands for a ransom were not met.

The clashes, which killed 3 soldiers and a policeman, began at 5 am on Tuesday, April 11.

Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Eduardo Ano said Abu Rami was "a very notorious Abu Sayyaf leader", who had climbed the ranks of separatist group.

The armed men sailed upriver from Inabanga, a farming and fishing coastal community some 780 kilometres away from the Abu Sayyaf stronghold of Jolo in the southern Philippines, local police told AFP.

Abu Sayyaf has carried out scores of other kidnappings over the years, including seizing 20 people from a resort in Palawan province in 2001.

Askali was also said to be keen on expanding the Abu Sayyaf's reach and elevating the group's profile from a criminal organisation into a legitimate affiliate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Abu Sayyaf militants continue to hold at least 29 captives in Sulu's jungles, many of them foreign tugboat and cargo ship crewmen seized at the sea border between the southern Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.

  • Joanne Flowers