ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine troops killed 12 Abu Sayyaf militants in clashes as they pressed an offensive in a southern province where the extremists have been blamed for the deadly bombing of a Roman Catholic cathedral, the military said Friday.
The 12 militants were killed in four separate clashes Thursday in mountainous Patikul town in Sulu province. The bodies of two of the slain militants were retrieved and several army scout rangers were wounded, the military's Western Mindanao Command said.
In the initial and largest clash, troops battled about 120 militants led by Hajan Sawadjaan and Radullan Sahiron near the village of Panglayahan. Four militants were killed and the rest withdrew and were chased by troops, military officials said.
Among those killed was Julie Ikit, an aide of Sahiron, who is on the U.S. list of wanted terrorists for his involvement in past ransom kidnappings and terrorist attacks, Sulu's military spokesman Lt. Col. Gerald Monfort said.
Troops later caught up with some of the fleeing militants in the jungle and engaged them in clashes that left eight more gunmen dead and several wounded, military officials said.
Sahiron managed to flee with Sawadjaan, the main suspect in the Jan. 27 bombing of a Roman Catholic cathedral during a Mass that killed 23 people in Sulu's capital town of Jolo. The cathedral attack by two suspected suicide bombers sparked the latest military offensive against the Abu Sayyaf.
Philippine officials suspect Sawadjaan, who has aligned his Abu Sayyaf faction with the Islamic State group, may be harboring at least one more potential suicide attacker, an Arab militant, in his jungle encampment in Patikul.
The Abu Sayyaf, which has been blacklisted by the U.S. and Philippine governments for deadly bombings, ransom kidnappings and beheadings, is estimated to have between 200 to 300 fighters. It has been weakened by battle losses and surrenders but remains a national security threat.