JOLO ISLAND, Philippines, Aug. 9 (UPI) — Four Abu Sayyaf militants died in a battle with members of the Moro National Liberation Front early Tuesday in the Philippines’ southern province of Sulu, military officials said.
The encounter occurred on Jolo Island during ongoing talks between Abu Sayyaf and the one-time rebel group for the release of seven hostages, a military spokesman said.
Maj. Felimon Tan, spokesman of the Armed Forces of the Western Mindanao Command, said in a statement that Abu Sayyaf sub-commander Alhabsy Misaya fought with MNLF fighters in Kalingalang Caluang where some hostages are being kept.
Tan said the MNLF operation and its efforts against the Abu Sayyaf were not sanctioned by the military. However, he said, the military backs help maintaining peace in the province.
The MNLF said it killed Jennor Lahab, also known as Cmdr. Jim Dragon, and his son. Other Abu Sayyaf members have yet to be identified.
The four men’s bodies were brought to the village of Punjungan for their families to claim.
In March, Tan accused Dragon of helping abduct 10 Indonesian sailors who were released two weeks later after negotiations.
Since 1991, the Abu Sayyaf have carried out bombings, kidnappings, assassinations and extortion in a fight for an independent Islamic province in the Philippines.
President Rodrigo Duterte was scheduled to meet with MNLF leader Nur Misuari on Friday, during his second visit to Basilan province since he took over the presidency on June 30. He first visited the region on July 21 to be briefed on the army’s ongoing battle with the Abu Sayyaf in the area.
Misuari is currently a fugitive after eluding charges against him and his men for a siege on the predominantly Christian city of Zamboanga in 2013 in which around 300 people were killed and thousands of houses destroyed. Duterte has said he is willing to give Misuari a safe-conduct pass to start talks between the government and his faction.
On Saturday, three people were kidnapped by suspected Abu Sayyaf insurgents, bringing to 27 the number held.