BASILAN – Government forces clashed Monday with Abu Sayyaf rebels on the troubled province of Basilan, a known stronghold of the notorious group tied to the Islamic State.
The fighting, which started before sunrise, broke out in the town of Al-Barka, also a known lair of the larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front which is currently holding peace talks with Manila.
The military’s Western Mindanao Command confirmed the fighting, but there were no immediate reports of casualties from both sides. Details of the clashes were also limited, but other reports said troops were pursuing the group of a senior Abu Sayyaf leader, Nurhasan Jamiri, tagged as behind numerous ransom kidnappings in Basilan and Zamboanga Peninsula.
It was unknown whether the military operation was connected to unconfirmed reports that the rebel group has executed German yachter Jurgen Kantner, who was kidnapped at sea off Tawi-Tawi province – also in the autonomous region - in November.
His wife, Sabine Merz, 56, was killed by rebels. The woman’s naked was found by soldiers on the boat. A shotgun was also recovered near her body, according to the Western Mindanao Command. The military tagged Abu Sayyaf sub-leader Muamar Askali as behind the kidnapping and originally demanded P500 million ransom for Kantner’s safe release.
The Abu Sayyaf demand was contained in a video released on February 14 on Telegram Messenger where it showed Kantner pleading to his government to save his life. The military said it also received reports of Kantner’s beheading, but officials would not confirm this unless his body is found.
In April 2014, Askali’s group also kidnapped two German yachters - Stefan Viktor Okonek, 71, and Henrike Diesen, 55, while heading to Sabah from a holiday in the Philippines and demanded P250 million in ransoms in exchange for their lives.
Askali originally demanded from Germany – on top of the ransoms - to cease all support to U.S. coalition campaign against Islamic State which is fighting for a caliphate in Syria and Iraq. The duo was freed six months later after the German government paid the ransoms delivered by Filipino security officials. The Abu Sayyaf is still holding about two dozen Malaysian, Indonesian and Vietnamese sailors kidnapped since last year in Sabah and Basilan province.
The Abu Sayyaf group, formed by Ustadz Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani in 1992 in Basilan, continues to recruit members to fight the government in their attempt to set up a strict Islamic caliphate in Mindanao. Janjalani was killed in a gun battle with the police in Basilan in 1998.
Since then, the group now has hundreds of members in the Muslim autonomous region and the military had miserably failed to stop the growing influence and violent campaigns of the rebel group because it did not sustain the combat operations needed to wipe out the Abu Sayyaf in the restive region. (Mindanao Examiner)