Hundreds of marines and army troops have been deployed to two islands in the southern Philippines for a new offensive aimed at eradicating al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf militants by the end of this year, officials said Sunday.
Troops also have been ordered to hunt down three key members of the Southeast Asian radical network Jemaah Islamiyah who have been hiding with the Abu Sayyaf. Jemaah Islamiyah figures are suspected of involvement in Friday's twin hotel bombings in the Indonesian capital, but authorities so far have not linked the fugitives in the Philippines to the Jakarta attacks.
The Philippines' 120,000-strong military has previously tried but failed to finish off the 400-member Abu Sayyaf.
Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro ordered the military last week to launch new assaults against the militants on Jolo and Basilan islands after the militants freed Italian hostage Eugenio Vagni — the last of three Red Cross aid workers who were kidnapped on Jolo in January.
Without any hostages to worry about, government forces can now carry out more offensives, regional military commander Maj. Gen. Benjamin Dolorfino said.
"We have received the final word that there will be no amnesty given to the Abu Sayyaf and we will take this cue from our national leadership to carry out an all-out effort against the group," said Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesperson Lt. Col. Romeo Brawner Jr..
Sen. Richard Gordon, chair of the Philippine National Red Cross, earlier proposed an amnesty for elderly members of the bandit group but this was rejected by Malacañang.
The government has opened peace talks with a bigger Muslim separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), but the Abu Sayyaf is not covered by the talks.
A report by the US Pacific Command describes the Abu Sayyaf as "a cross between a chilling gang of bandits and a franchise operation of al-Qaida."
"Since the early 1990s, it has terrorized the southern Philippines with kidnappings, bombs and outright massacres; it has also been linked to several international terrorist plots and militants," the report noted.
More recent reports said the Abu Sayyaf, under new leadership, has been able to link up with the Indonesian Jemaah Islamiyah, said to be behind a regional Islamist terror campaign, including two recent bombings in Jakarta.
AP, Philippine troops deployed to crush Abu Sayyaf, 19 July 2009, http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5ha_AevW8dDLQ0vyR5jO8UG...
Philippine Daily Inquirer, Military: Abu Sayyaf gone by year end , 20 July 2009, http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/inquirerheadlines/nation/view/20090720-2163...