CEBU, Philippines (AP) — After a massive manhunt, Philippine forces killed at least four suspected Muslim militants Saturday in a central resort province where troops had foiled possible kidnapping and bombing plots by extremists earlier this month, officials said.
Army troops and police killed ringleader Joselito Melloria in a gun battle with about seven militants near Clarin town in Bohol province. Melloria’s companions fled and three of them were later killed by troops, military chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Ano said.
“They dared to go to an unfamiliar area and they couldn’t find any support from villagers in Bohol,” Ano said, adding that troops were continuing to hunt down the remaining militants.
Melloria, a convert to Islam and a Bohol resident, had guided Abu Sayyaf militants from their jungle encampments in the country’s south to his Bohol village to carry out possible ransom kidnappings and bombings. Troops, however, detected the militants and killed four of them in April 11 fighting that also left three soldiers, a policeman and two villagers dead.
Melloria fled with at least seven other militants. President Rodrigo Duterte offered a 1 million peso ($20,000) reward for information leading to their capture.
A military profile of Melloria, who uses the militant nom de guerre Abu Alih, said he converted to Islam when he married a Muslim woman in southern Zamboanga del Sur province in 2005.
After a yearlong trip to Saudi Arabia, he returned to the Philippines in 2015 and joined Maute, a small nascent group based in the south that has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group. He later assimilated with another IS-linked group, Ansar Khilafa Philippines, and Abu Sayyaf, the military report said.
Philippine security officials say, had the Bohol plots been successful, Melloria would have been designated to lead Ansar Khilafa Philippines.
The fighting and foiled terror plots in Bohol have prompted Western countries to caution citizens from traveling to the central region.
The United States and the Philippines list Abu Sayyaf as a terrorist organization because its bombings, kidnappings for ransom and beheadings.