Philippine military says it has killed 70 militants



MANILA: The Philippine military said Tuesday it has killed 70 Abu Sayyaf militants and captured 32 others in an offensive that began in July against the group, which is accused of kidnapping sailors from neighbouring countries for ransom.

Military spokesman Col. Edgard Arevalo said 28 government troops have died and nearly 100 others have been wounded in one of the largest military campaigns against the brutal militants in the southern island provinces of Sulu and Basilan.

At least 34 militants have surrendered under pressure from the offensive, he said.

President Rodrigo Duterte flew to Sulu with top defense officials and military commanders on Monday to rally the troops and give medals to six soldiers wounded in the latest fighting in Sulu's Patikul and Indanan towns, which killed at least eight Abu Sayyaf gunmen, Arevalo said.

Troops were ordered to "continue to intensify the conduct of operations and maintain the momentum," Arevalo said.

Duterte has ordered the military to destroy the Abu Sayyaf, which is accused of kidnapping Malaysian and Indonesian tugboat crewmen in a series of attacks this year that prompted the three countries to map out a joint strategy to strengthen sea border security.

The daring attacks in the busy sea lane have prompted Indonesia to restrict coal shipments to the Philippines. The militants have targeted slow-moving tugboats pulling coal barges which are easy to board, but last month they attacked an ocean-going South Korean cargo ship off southern Tawi Tawi province, near Sulu, abducting its South Korean skipper and a Filipino crewman.

Duterte plans to discuss the Abu Sayyaf threat when he visits Malaysia next week.

The Abu Sayyaf has survived through the years mainly with kidnappings for ransom. A Philippine threat assessment report seen by The Associated Press showed that the militants pocketed at least 353 million pesos ($7.3 million) from six ransom kidnappings involving 21 people in the first six months of the year.

The report said the lucrative payoffs enabled the group to procure firearms and ammunition.

Most of the total was paid for the release of 14 Indonesian and four Malaysian crewmen who had been held at Abu Sayyaf jungle camps in Sulu province, the report said.

Philippine officials have said they were unaware of any ransoms paid for the hostages and added that they continue to observe a no-ransom policy.

Military offensives reduced the number of Abu Sayyaf fighters to 481 in the first half of the year from 506 in the same period last year, but they managed to carry out 32 bombings in that time — a 68 percent increase — in attempts to distract the military assaults, the report said.

The militants have an estimated 438 firearms, it said.

The report said the group retains new members by posting "their pictures, videos in the social media to dissuade them from leaving."