ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AP) — Abu Sayyaf militants killed nine people and wounded 16 others in an early morning attack Monday on a southern Philippine village which may have been in retaliation for a series of battle setbacks, officials said.
At least 20 Abu Sayyaf militants opened fire on villagers and burned five houses and a village hall in the attack on Tubigan village in Maluso town on Basilan island, military and police officials said. Among the dead were villagers and a militiaman.
Government militiamen were surprised by the dawn attack but later managed to put up resistance with extra troops and drive the attackers away after two hours of heavy fighting, the military said.
The militants fled and were being pursued by government forces.
The Abu Sayyaf "must have been hit hard by our operations over the weekend and opted to attack communities which they know are not supportive of them," Basilan military commander Col. Juvymax Uy said.
Regional Gov. Mujiv Hataman condemned the attack, saying the militants wanted to divert the military's focus from an ongoing offensive by attacking even children, women and the elderly.
"They are cowards because they couldn't face their military adversaries," Hataman said.
The group has been blacklisted by the United States and the Philippines as a terrorist organization for ransom kidnappings, beheadings, bombings and other violence.
Some Abu Sayyaf commanders have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group and were involved in a bloody siege in southern Marawi city which has left more than 750 people dead, mostly militants, and has dragged on for nearly three months.
President Rodrigo Duterte has placed the southern third of the largely Roman Catholic nation under martial law to deal with the Marawi crisis and prevent the Abu Sayyaf and other extremist groups from staging other major attacks elsewhere in the volatile region.
Troops pressed a monthslong offensive over the weekend, seizing two Abu Sayyaf camps where the militants made bombs near Akbar town in predominantly Muslim Basilan, the military said. Nine bombs and bomb materials were recovered by troops, it said.
Troops killed three militants and wounded five others in a gunbattle Sunday near Akbar.
Troops also rescued a Vietnamese kidnap victim, Do Trung Hieu, late Sunday on Mataja island in Basilan after nine months of captivity, Uy said.
The freed hostage was one of six Vietnamese crewmembers of a ship who were snatched by the ransom-seeking militants near Sibago island off Basilan in November 2016. One Vietnamese escaped from the Abu Sayyaf in June but two others were found beheaded last month in Basilan, the military said.
Abu Sayyaf gunmen are still holding 14 foreigners and four Filipino kidnap victims in their jungle hideouts, according to the military.