At least eight people were killed today in a gunbattle between Philippine forces and suspected Abu Sayyaf militants on a central resort island, far from the extremists’ southern jungle bases and in a region where the US government has warned that the gunmen may be plotting kidnappings, officials said. Military officials said at least five gunmen, two soldiers and a policeman had died in the ongoing gunbattle in a village in the coastal town of Inabanga in Bohol province.
The island province is known for its beach resorts and wildlife and lies near Cebu province, a regional commercial and tourism center. National police chief Director General Ronald dela Rosa said troops and policemen attacked the gunmen early today in Inabanga, where the gunmen had arrived aboard three boats. The gunmen took cover in three houses as the firefight broke out.
Government forces seized control of two of the houses, and the rest of the gunmen either were in the third house or had fled the area, dela Rosa told reporters.
If it is proven that the gunmen were from the Abu Sayyaf, it may be the group’s first known attempt to carry out ransom kidnappings deep in the heartland of the central Philippines, far from its jungle lairs in the southern provinces of Sulu and Basilan.
Bohol island, where one of the world’s smallest primates, called tarsiers, are found, drawing many tourists, lies about 640 kilometers southeast of Manila. Bohol is about an hour away by boat from Cebu province, a bustling commercial and tourism hub in the region.
Abu Sayyaf militants have crossed the sea border with Malaysia on powerful speedboats and kidnapped scores of foreign tourists in the past. “If we were not able to monitor this and engage them with our government forces, it’s a cause for alarm if they were able to carry out kidnappings,” dela Rosa said.
Military chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Ano told The Associated Press that military intelligence operatives had been trying to track down the movements of the suspected militants, who first traveled from Sulu to southern Zamboanga peninsula.
Intelligence later indicated the gunmen landed ashore in Inabanga, prompting military and police officials to deploy their forces, he said.
The gunmen traveled on board motor boats along a river to Inabanga’s Napo village, where government forces assaulted them, military spokesman Col. Edgard Arevalo said, adding that troops recovered four rifles and a homemade bomb from the slain gunmen.