MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine troops have launched airstrikes and ground assaults that reportedly wounded one of Southeast Asia's most-wanted militant suspects who is trying to establish a new base for an alliance backing the Islamic State group, officials said Friday.
Intelligence reports showed the assaults killed at least four militants, possibly including a Malaysian, and reportedly wounded the main target, Isnilon Hapilon, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told The Associated Press.
He said Hapilon apparently managed to flee from a camp in the mountainous hinterlands of Butig town in southern Lanao del Sur province.
"Army troops are still in hot pursuit," Lorenzana said.
Airstrikes targeted Hapilon's group on Wednesday and Thursday. Hundreds of troops, backed by artillery fire, then began pursuing him and other militants from the so-called Maute group in Butig, military chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Ano said.
Hapilon, who is on the U.S. Department of Justice list of most-wanted terrorists worldwide with a reward of up to $5 million for his capture, moved to Butig from his stronghold on southern Basilan island a month ago to look for a base for his new militant alliance, Ano told the AP.
Lanao is about 830 kilometers (520 miles) south of Manila.
President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly warned that the emergence of Islamic State-influenced militant groups is fast looming as a major national security threat. While pursuing peace talks with two large Muslim rebel groups in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation, he has ordered the military to destroy smaller but brutal extremist groups like the Abu Sayyaf, which is dreaded for cross-border kidnappings, beheadings and bombings.
Duterte asked the two Muslim rebel groups in talks with the government not to help extremists under attack by government forces, warning them such a move may break existing cease-fires.
"I am pleading. Do not allow the Maute and the other terrorist groups to enter and seek refuge in your camps," Duterte said in a speech after meeting Ano, Lorenzana and military commanders in the south. "If you share a part of your territory, you don't allow us to enter, and you give them protection ... forget about peace, let's just fight."
A wave of Abu Sayyaf kidnappings of crewmen on ships, mostly from Indonesia and Malaysia, has sparked a regional security alarm.
Hapilon, an Arabic-speaking Islamic preacher known for his expertise on commando assaults, has been indicted in the District of Columbia for alleged involvement in attacks on Americans and other foreigners in the southern Philippines.
The elusive Abu Sayyaf commander pledged allegiance to the IS group in 2014.
He then organized an alliance called Dawlatul Islam Wilayatul Mashriq, which is now believed to include at least 10 small militant groups including some Abu Sayyaf factions, the Maute and two other groups established by Malaysian and Indonesian militants. They all use black IS-style flags, according to counterterrorism officials and documents.
The Maute and another group under the alliance of Ansar Al Khilafah Philippines have been linked to a Sept. 2 bombing of a night market that killed 15 people and wounded 69 others in southern Davao city, the president's hometown, and a failed bombing at Manila's popular Rizal Park and the U.S. Embassy last year.