Philippine marines have killed a leader of the Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom group and rescued four Indonesian hostages held since last year, the military announced on Sunday.
Majan Sahidjuan, alias Apo Mike, was severely wounded in a gunbattle with the marines on Saturday night in southern Tawi-Tawi province, and later died, said Lieutenant General Corleto Vinluan Jr.
He described Sahidjuan as the mastermind in several kidnappings by Abu Sayyaf, or Father of the Sword, which is based in Sulu and has carried out bomb attacks and piracy for decades. Since 2014, it has proclaimed allegiance to the Islamic State group.
“We are happy that all the hostages are safe now and we were also able to neutralise the notorious ‘Apo Mike’ and two of his comrades,” said Vinluan, commander of the military’s Western Mindanao Command.
Another military officer said the militants were attempting to cross the sea border to Tambisan Island in neighbouring Malaysia’s Sabah state to release the captives in exchange for a ransom of at least five million pesos (US$104,000), but the Philippine military got wind of the plan and launched covert assaults.
The officer, who has a keen knowledge of anti-Abu Sayyaf operations, spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to speak publicly.
Sahidjuan was among five Abu Sayyaf militants who went to Tawi-Tawi by boat from Sulu, with their four Indonesian kidnap victims last Thursday.
Their boat capsized after it was battered by big waves, giving government troops the chance to rescue three of the four hostages. The fourth was found in the same village where the gunbattle took place.
The four were among five Indonesians kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf on Jan 17 last year off Tambisan in Malaysia. One of the five was killed while trying to escape.
Abu Sayyaf is a small but violent group that has been blacklisted by the Philippines and the US as a terrorist organisation. Officially known by the IS as the Islamic State – East Asia Province, it is a jihadist militant group that follows the Wahhabi doctrine of Sunni Islam.
The militants have been considerably weakened by years of military offensives but remain a national security threat.
In recent years, they started venturing away from their jungle encampments in Sulu, a poverty wracked Muslim province in the largely Roman Catholic nation, and staged kidnappings in Malaysian coastal towns and targeted crews of cargo ships.