MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine troops killed at least five suspected Abu Sayyaf militants and suffered three fatalities during a firefight in Bohol province on Tuesday, the military said, days after Western travel warnings about visiting the holiday island.
The clash took place after the United States and Canadian embassies in Manila warned citizens against travelling to Central Visayas, which includes Cebu and Bohol, where rebel groups may attempt to conduct kidnappings during Holy Week in the predominantly Catholic nation.
Cebu and Bohol are two of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, far away from the island strongholds of Abu Sayyaf, an Islamic State-linked group known for extortion, piracy and kidnaps for ransom.
Abu Sayyaf is currently holding more than two dozen captives on the southern island of Jolo.
“We have received a report that five of the enemies were killed and we have also recovered from them four high-powered firearms,” said military spokesman Colonel Edgard Arevalo.
“But sadly, three on the government side were also killed while two others were wounded.”
Security forces launched the operation after receiving intelligence that a heavily armed group of 10 people was seen on three boats along the riverside of Sitio Ilaya in Inabanga town, Armed Forces chief General Eduardo Ano said.
The group’s motive for travelling to Bohol was not known. They were cornered in an isolated section of the town.
Early this month, government troops killed more than 10 Abu Sayyaf militants in an attempt to free Vietnamese captives.
Abu Sayyaf, which means “bearer of the sword”, earlier this year beheaded a German hostage and two Canadian captives suffered the same fate last year. They were executed when deadlines to pay ransoms expired.
President Rodrigo Duterte says Islamic State is trying to gain a foothold in the restive southern Philippines, an impoverished, underdeveloped and predominantly Muslim region fraught by insurgency.
He has pleaded with Philippine separatist groups to reject advances of extremists. The military has been engaged in large-scale offensives with Abu Sayyaf but progress has been hampered by the presence of civilians in its strongholds in Jolo and Basilan islands.
Reporting by Enrico dela Cruz; Editing by Martin Petty