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Escalation of military operations raises risk of retaliatory ASG attacks against civilian population in southern Philippines

On 16 and 17 April, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) suffered noteworthy casualties during an operation targeting Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) militants in Sulu province, which produced little in the way of tangible gains. The army’s Joint Task Force Sulu (AFP-JTFS), which is tasked with identifying and arresting ASG militants in a key operational area for the group, was formed in response to the January 2019 Jolo cathedral bombings (which killed 20 people and wounded at least 100 others) and a consequent directive by President Rodrigo Duterte to ‘exterminate the ASG’.

On 16 April, the military clashed with a small group of militants in the Patikul area of Sulu, a known ASG stronghold, wounding three soldiers. The next day, the AFP-JTFS conducted pursuit operations in which 11 soldiers were killed and 14 others were wounded. This was the highest AFP death toll in clashes with the ASG since 12 soldiers were killed during a counter-terrorism operation in Patikul in August 2016. In the latest fighting, local media outlets reported that soldiers had initially been targeted by an improvised explosive device (IED), which was then followed by an hour-long exchange of fire with approximately 40 militants. Five militants were reported to have been killed during the clashes and that the ASG also succeeded in seizing six R4 rifles (including one model with a 40 mm grenade launcher), one K3 Squad Automatic Weapon, and handheld radios from the soldiers.

Abu Sayyaf Group’s area of operation in the past 12 months. (Abu Sayyaf Group Dashboard, JTIC, Jane’s)

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