MANILA, Philippines – Philippine bomber planes and troops assaulted a mountain stronghold of the Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group in the south Sunday in a new offensive targeting a key Malaysian terrorism suspect in Southeast Asia and allied Filipino gunmen, officials said.
Filipino marines found three bodies of suspected militants scattered around the Abu Sayyaf jungle lair near Karawan village in Sulu province's Indanan town after OV-10 planes bombed the area. Security officials were trying to identify the bodies, regional military spokesman Lt. Col. Randolph Cabangbang said.
Sulu police operations chief Amil Baanan said the targets of the offensive, which started Saturday, included Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as Marwan, a U.S.-trained Malaysian engineer long hunted by U.S. and Philippine authorities for his alleged role in past bombings and other terror attacks.
The troops were also after Singaporean militant Muhammad Ali Bin Al-Rahman, also known as Muawiya, who is believed to be affiliated with the Southeast Asian militant network Jemaah Islamiyah. Abu Sayyaf commander Umbra Jumdail, who has given refuge to Marwan and Muawiya in his jungle encampment, was also targeted, Banaan said.
Washington has offered $5 million reward for the capture or killing of Marwan, among Southeast Asia's most wanted terror suspects.
New intelligence indicated that the three terror suspects have been hiding in the heavily-forested Karawan hinterland with about 30 Abu Sayyaf militants, prompting the military to order the assaults, military officials said.
Marines found three assault rifles, a pistol and camouflage uniforms, which were abandoned by the militants, who were being pursued, Cabangbang said.
Marwan, who is believed to have provided bomb-making training and funds to Filipino militants for years, is a key associate of Indonesian militant Umar Patek, who was captured last Jan. 25 in Pakistan's garrison town of Abbottabad, where Osama bin Laden was killed in a highly secretive U.S. commando attack four months later.
Patek, whose real name is Anis Alawi Jaffar, has hidden since 2003 in Abu Sayyaf jungle encampments in the southern Philippines before he left a few years ago and ended up in Pakistan with his Filipino wife, who was also arrested, military and police officials said.
U.S.-backed Philippine offensives have considerably weakened the Abu Sayyaf, one of at least four Muslim insurgent groups operating in the south. About 380 of its fighters remain at large in the jungles of Jolo island in Sulu, an impoverished Muslim region about 590 miles south of Manila, and in nearby Basilan and outlying islands.
The militants have turned to kidnappings for ransom for survival and are believed to be holding a number of hostages, including an American, two Malaysians, an Indian and a Japanese.