A key commander of the Abu Sayyaf have been killed in an encounter with Philippine military troops in the southern Visayan island of Bohol.
Military chief of staff General Eduardo Ano said troops recovered and identified the remains of Moammar Askali, also known as Abu Rami, at the scene of the battle in the village of Inabanga, Bohol.
The encounter happened days after the U. S., Canada and Australia issued travel advisories warning their citizens not to travel to the Central Visayas.
Five other Abu Sayyaf gunmen were killed in the fighting on Tuesday (April 12 in the Philippines), along with four soldiers and policemen.
Askali was blamed for the kidnappings of John Ridsdel and Robert Hall in September 2015. The Canadians had been taken from a marina by Abu Sayyaf gunmen along with a Norwegian man, Kjartan Sekkingstad, and Hall’s Filipino girlfriend, Marites Flor.
The Canadian hostages were beheaded last year after Prime Minister Trudeau refused to pay ransom.
“This is a major blow to the Abu Sayyaf,” Ano told AP news agency. “If they have further plans to kidnap innocent people somewhere, they will now have to think twice.”
He said Askali had led several fighters, who travelled by speedboats from their jungle hideouts to Bohol, in an apparent bid to carry out another kidnapping in a region that is popular for its beach resorts and wildlife.
Sporadic gun battles between the remaining Abu Sayyaf fighters and government forces continued on Wednesday, military officials said.
It is the Abu Sayyaf’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 is about 640km southeast of Manila, and about an hour away by boat from Cebu province, across the busy Cebu Strait.
Abu Sayyaf fighters have crossed the sea border with Malaysia on powerful speedboats and kidnapped scores of foreign tourists in past years.
In 2001, they sailed as far as western Palawan province, where they seized 20 people from a resort.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered troops to destroy the group in Sulu and in outlying island provinces, and has threatened to declare martial law in the country’s south if the threat posed by the Abu Sayyaf and other groups aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) gets out of control.
Abu Sayyaf is still holding 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.