MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine military has launched a fresh offensive against Muslim extremist groups in the country's volalite south.
The military's Southern Command said the operation is directed at the "top-of-the-list terrorist groups" -- the Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah -- and their leaders on Jolo island, in southern Sulu province, a known bastion of extremist guerrillas.
"We have been planning and working for months to find and track the terrorist leadership in Sulu and the time is now," a military statement quoted Southcom chief Maj. Gen. Gabriel Habacon as saying.
Elusive Abu Sayyaf leader Khaddafy Janjalani and a number of militants belonging to Jemaah Islamiyah, an Indonesian-based group also linked to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, have been sighted on Jolo in recent months, military officials have said.
"Those (terrorist) individuals will either give up, be captured or be killed through our action," Habacon said. "This will not be a quick battle, but it will be one where we will be decisive and victorious."
A military task force on Jolo includes a marine brigade, an army brigade, plus naval and air assets. The statement did not say the estimated number of guerrillas they will be pursuing in the jungles of Jolo, about 940 kilometers (580 miles) south of Manila.
The focus of the operations is the vicinity of Indanan town where leaders of the groups were reportedly converging, the statement said. Indanan was the scene of sporadic gunbattles and shellings late last year, forcing thousands of villagers to evacuate.
The Abu Sayyaf group is notorious for ransom kidnappings, beheadings and bombings, including a February 2004 attack that gutted a ferry ship and killed 116 people in one of Southeast Asia's worst terrorist attacks.
Janjalani and several other Abu Sayyaf leaders are on the U.S. wanted list of terrorists for kidnapping and killing in 2001 at two Americans, including Christian missionary Martin Burnham, who was taken from a Philippine resort along with his wife. She was wounded during a military rescue.
U.S. troops maintain a presence on Jolo island as part of counterterrorism training, focusing on humanitarian missions including building schools, fixing roads and improving the water supply.
Janjalani's presence there has raised concerns that Abu Sayyaf may be plotting attacks against Philippine and U.S. troops.