An incensed President Benigno Aquino III ordered the Philippine military Monday to crush Abu Sayyaf militants who killed seven marines and beheaded two of them in last week's fighting.
Careful of religious sensitivities, troops hunting down the al-Qaida-linked militants in the southern, predominantly Muslim Sulu province are under orders to avoid disrupting the holy month of Ramadan, regional military commander Lt. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer said.
Government forces were focusing their manhunt and assaults far from Muslim communities, he said.
Seven marines were killed, including two who were found beheaded, and 26 wounded last week when they tried to capture two Abu Sayyaf leaders in an assault on their jungle camp in mountainous Patikul town.
At least 13 militants died while dozens of others, believed led by Radulan Sahiron and Isnilon Hapilon, withdrew deep into the woods and were being pursued by troops, the military said.
After honoring the dead marines, Aquino ordered troops to make sure the militants are brought to justice, a presidential statement said Monday.
"This terrorist group should not be allowed to think that it can challenge the whole state," Aquino said.
He warned that the Abu Sayyaf has once again become a prime government target. "Mark my words, to those of you who perpetrated this atrocity, know that you are now No. 1 on my radar," he said.
U.S.-backed Philippine military offensives have weakened the group, which is blacklisted by Washington as a terrorist organization, but it has endured as a key security threat.
It is notorious for bombings, kidnappings and beheadings over the last two decades.
The military, meanwhile, has arrested and detained a military officer and three soldiers accused of torturing a man they suspected of links to the Abu Sayyaf on southern Basilan Island, near Sulu.
The man was taken into custody July 23 and brought to a military camp, where he was allegedly tortured for four days into admitting that he was an Abu Sayyaf gunman. The suspect's family denied he was a terrorist and complained to authorities.
Col. Domingo Tutaan, who heads the military's human rights office, said an investigation was under way to determine if there was enough evidence for criminal prosecution. He assured the public that the military would not tolerate human rights violations.