Philippine military officials say at least 16 people were killed Monday in an insurgent attack on civilians in the country’s southwest.
A military spokeswoman said about 50 members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) ambushed residents of a neighborhood in Talipao town. The residents were on their way to a celebration marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Captain Rowena Muyuela said men and women were killed and at least 13 children were among the injured. She said the civilians were family members of the B-PAT or Barangay Peacekeeping Action Team, a neighborhood volunteer police group.
Muyuela said insurgents retaliated against the volunteer group because they, along with the military and national police, have been carrying out operations against the Abu Sayyaf.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines called the attack a “heinous atrocity.” In a statement from general headquarters, it said the act “cannot be justified by any ideology and shows the Abu Sayyaf’s terroristic nature.” The statement said those responsible would be brought to justice.
Primer on insurgency
The Abu Sayyaf is based in the island province of Sulu, where Talipao is located. It started out as an insurgent group calling for a separate Muslim state and in the 1990s received seed money from al-Qaida. But funding dwindled as authorities cracked down on international backers of terrorist activities. And its ranks diminished as international operations against terror groups intensified following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In 2002, the United States started rotating visiting forces to the southern Philippines to train the local military in counterterrorism operations. But the U.S. said in June it would scale back its presence in the south. Some 320 U.S. troops are there now.
U.S. government officials say the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines was “successful at drastically reducing the capabilities of domestic and trans-national terrorist groups.” They point out that the Abu Sayyaf has devolved into a criminal group focused more on kidnappings for ransom and other crimes.
Officials say the U.S.-backed program will “cease to exist” in the first half of 2015.
The Abu Sayyaf and several other smaller insurgent groups are on the fringes of a recently signed peace pact between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the country’s largest Muslim rebel group.