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Philippine troops clash with Abu Sayyaf, IS militants following deadly church bombing Open in fullscreen

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Philippine troops clash with Abu Sayyaf, IS militants following deadly church bombing

The fresh clashes followed the bombing of a church in Jolo last Sunday [AFP]

Date of publication: 3 February, 2019

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Five soldiers and three militants have been killed in clashes over the weekend that followed a government order to destroy Abu Sayyaf militant group hideouts.

Philippine troops clashed with Islamist militants in fierce jungle fighting that left five soldiers and three militants dead, as the military pushed forward with a fresh offensive against armed extremists.

The fighting followed an order from President Rodrigo Duterte to destroy the Abu Sayyaf group after the bombing last Sunday of the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral in the Sulu provincial capital of Jolo. Twenty two people were killed and wounded more than 100 wounded.

Regional military spokesman Col. Gerry Besana said another five soldiers and 15 militants were wounded in nearly two hours of fighting on Saturday between the army and about 150 Islamic State group-linked fighters in the jungles near Patikul town.

The militants were led by Abu Sayyaf commander Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, who is suspected of helping plot the bombing.

Abu Sayyaf, which has about 300 to 400 armed fighters, has been blacklisted by the US and the Philippines as a terrorist organisation because of years of bombings, kidnappings and beheadings in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation. The group has also carried out attacks in neighbouring Indonesia and Malaysia.

Government forces have over the years pressed on sporadic offensives to crush the group, including in Jolo, a poverty-wracked island of more than 700,000 people where Muslims are the majority.

Since the church attack, the air force has launched airstrikes on suspected militant bases near Patikul and police killed a suspected militant on a raid in the city.

Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano said on Friday that an Indonesian couple was responsible for last weekend's church bombing aimed at fomenting sectarian conflict in the south

Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir said Jakarta has not been able to confirm the involvement of Indonesian nationals in the attack.

There has been speculation that the bombing may be a diversionary move by Muslim militants after troops recently killed a number of IS-linked extremists in an encampment in the hinterlands of Lanao del Sur province, also in the south. The area is near Marawi, a Muslim city that was besieged for five months in 2017 by hundreds of IS-aligned militants, including foreign fighters.

Troops quelled the insurrection, which left more 1,100 people dead, mostly militants, and the heart of the mosque-studded city in ruins.

Duterte declared martial law in the entire southern third of the country to deal with the Marawi siege, his worst security crisis. His martial law declaration has been extended to allow troops to finish off radical Muslim groups and other insurgents, but bombings and other attacks have continued.

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