MANILA – Five Filipino soldiers and three Abu Sayyaf militants were killed in the southern Philippines during an operation against the alleged perpetrators of last week’s attack on a cathedral in Jolo that killed at least 20 people, the army said on Sunday.
Another 18 soldiers were wounded during the one hour, 50 minute-long gun battle that began at around 11:30 am on Saturday in Patikul in Sulu province, spokesperson Col. Gerry Besana said according to the official Philippine News Agency.
The clash occurred during an unsuccessful attempt to capture Hajan Sawadjaan, one of the Abu Sayyaf leaders linked to the bomb attack against the cathedral, one of the deadliest attacks in the volatile region in recent years.
That was followed three days later by another incident, in which a grenade was thrown at a mosque in Zamboanga, killing at least two people.
Last week, the presidential palace condemned the assaults and accused Islamist separatists of trying to destabilize the region of Mindanao, a majority-Muslim region which recently voted for increased autonomy after a referendum.
“The successive attacks on two different places of worship depict the ruthlessness and the godlessness of these mass murderers,” said the presidential spokesperson, Salvador Panelo, in a statement.Panelo described the latest incident as “a taunting challenge to the capability of the government to secure the safety of the inhabitants in Mindanao.”
The Islamic State terror group claimed the first attack, although Philippine authorities have attributed it to the Ajang-Ajang militia, the Sulu faction of Abu Sayyaf, which has pledged allegiance to the IS.
The incidents took place just days after the referendum for the creation of Bangsamoro, an autonomous Muslim region in the south of the country, as part of peace talks to end a decades-long separatist conflict with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
Sulu voted against integrating into Bangsamoro, but since it is part of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao with four other provinces, its votes are counted in block, meaning it will belong to the newly formed region.
In Sulu, whose capital is Jolo, several radical groups linked to the Islamic State, such as Abu Sayyaf or the Maute group, have been responsible for bloody attacks in the past.